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The Economist Intelligence Unit is relaunching its industry blog. Now known as EIU Views, the site features data-driven commentary by members of the EIU’s industry team. The approach is much the same as Daily Data Point, but the new site will feature a broader pool of editors writing about a wider range of sectors (including, of course, the financial services industry).

Please update your bookmarks and head over to www.eiuviews.com. To see only the finance posts, visit www.eiuviews.com/index.php/category/financial-services. For the finance RSS feed, use www.eiuviews.com/index.php/category/financial-services/feed.

Yesterday, bonds issued by Walt Disney set new records for corporate debt, with the lowest-ever coupons achieved for five-, ten- and 30-year bonds. Disney’s ten-year tranche, with a coupon of 2.75%, boasted a yield roughly the same as French sovereign bonds.

As investors seek safe havens amid market turmoil, yields on US Treasuries have plunged, giving intrepid corporate borrowers in America an opportunity to pitch for low-cost, long-term funding. Coca-Cola and AT&T also issued bonds this week at record-low yields for the companies.

As Treasuries, gold, the Swiss franc and other perceived low-risk assets attract investors, this got us thinking about the creditworthiness of the world’s strongest corporate borrowers vis-à-vis beleaguered sovereigns. At the close of trading yesterday, there were 25 companies with narrower credit default swap spreads than the top-ranked sovereign, Norway. In the minds of CDS traders, Norway is roughly as creditworthy as Walt Disney  (is Mickey’s Magic Kingdom now considered a safe haven?). The map below shows the approximate corporate equivalents to a selection of European sovereigns, according to the CDS market.

A new survey of executives by the Economist Intelligence Unit adds another perspective to the all-but-inevitable event roiling financial markets: a Greek default. Nearly three-quarters of more than 300 executives polled by the EIU over the past week believe that Greece will eventually default on its debt. (For the full survey results, visit the EIU’s Business Research site.)

On Monday, euro area finance ministers released a statement calling for a “broader and more forward-looking policy response” to Greece’s ongoing struggles with its crushing debt burden. On the same day, Greek prime minister George Papandreou added his thoughts on the matter, warning that “if Europe does not make the right, collective, forceful decisions now, we risk new, and possibly global, market calamities due to a contagion of doubt that will engulf our common union.”

In the EIU’s survey, a small but noteworthy minority of respondents, 12%, think that the impact of a Greek default will be of a similar scale and magnitude of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. A larger share of executives, 47%, predict a significant, long-lasting impact, but with the pain largely confined to the euro area. The remaining respondents either expect little impact or weren’t willing to hazard a guess.

With Greece’s benchmark bonds trading at half of face value, and spreads for Spain and Italy recently touching euro-era highs, officials are scrambling to stem the contagion from the monetary union’s troubled periphery. There is talk of an emergency euro summit on Friday, when release of the EU’s bank stress tests could destabilise markets further. But true to form, euro area officials are finding it difficult to come to an agreement on whether to meet or not.  

After a brief growth spurt, bank lending in the US shrank in April and May, according to the latest data from the Federal Reserve. As Bloomberg points out, banks’ appetite for government bonds has remained relatively robust since the onset of the financial crisis. American banks now hold almost US$1.7trn in treasuries and related government debt, with holdings growing by an 11-12% annual clip so far this year, despite miserly yields.

The situation at Japanese banks looks eerily similar. Funds are being recycled into government bonds instead of loans, with year-on-year credit in a seemingly permanent state of contraction. The Economist Intelligence Unit does not expect America to experience a protracted slump like the one that has dogged Japan since its spectacular asset-price bubble burst in early 1990s. Still, there are enough similarities in some metrics to cause discomfort.

Encouragingly, deposits at American and Japanese banks are at or near record highs. This will please regulators, who are urging banks to avoid flightier wholesale sources of funding. But until these funds are put to more productive use than stockpiling low-yielding government bonds, nobody will be truly happy.

In most large countries, loan growth of 17% would represent a breakneck pace. In China, such growth is perceived as sign of a slowdown.

In May, the value of China’s outstanding bank loans rose by 17% from the year before, the slowest pace since late 2008. A series of interest rate increases and, more importantly, hikes to banks’ reserve requirements appear to be cooling the stimulus-fuelled surge in lending recorded in the months after the global financial crisis. The latest boost to reserve requirements, announced today, is the sixth hike so far this year. More increases are likely in the coming months, as worries persist over rising consumer inflation—5.5% in May—and a frothy property market. Still, the Economist Intelligence Unit expects China’s GDP to grow by 9% this year, only a modest slowdown from the 10.3% growth recorded in 2010. Despite the central bank’s tightening measures, credit conditions will remain relatively loose.

(Note: Some data in this post, and the accompanying chart, have been updated to reflect revised historical data.)

Analysts are poring over new statistics on debt exposure from the Bank for International Settlements released today. As has become customary with each quarterly release of this data, the report’s (virtual) pages are flipped directly to the section detailing the size of banks’ portfolio of bonds issued by governments on the euro area’s troubled periphery.

French and German banks are the most exposed, by far, to troubled government debt. Although banks have been reducing their exposure—the value of debt from Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain held by foreign banks fell by 35% last year—significant holdings remain. German banks, for example, were sitting on more than 40% of the US$54bn in foreign-held Greek government debt at the end of 2010.

The inevitable restructuring of Greek debt will be painful for lenders, although the severity will vary according to the method employed. In the meantime, attempts to cajole banks into a voluntary refinancing of Greece’s daunting debt pile (along the lines of the “Vienna Initiative” in central and eastern Europe) will continue, despite a glaring lack of incentives for lenders to take part.

After reaching a (nominal) record price early this month, gold is back in the news, with prices resuming their climb after a mid-month stumble. Risk aversion tied to renewed fears over the euro area is generally cited for the recent spurt.

Taking a longer view, the Economist Intelligence Unit believes that the gold price is now at or near its peak (details can be found at our Global Forecasting Service site: free registration required). The average price is expected to peak this quarter, with an 8% slide forecast for the second half of the year. Monetary tightening and a stronger dollar should push the gold price down further in 2012—in terms of the average annual price, we expect a decline of 12% next year.

The number of reports of suspected mortgage fraud in America rose by 5% last year, to a record annual high, according to the Treasury Department. But a new study by the LexisNexis Mortgage Asset Research Institute, which collects its own data on mortgage fraud, claims that cases of “verified, material misrepresentation” in the mortgage origination process fell by 41% over the same period.

A stricter definition of fraud explains some of the difference with the Treasury’s figures, as does a general decline in mortgage lending, LexisNexis says. More worryingly, the company notes that “fraud has become more complex and harder to verify using traditional methods.” More than 90% of the fraud submissions received in 2010 dealt with loans written in prior years; with time, more fraud perpetrated in 2010 will likely come to light. Among the cases reported to LexisNexis last year, Florida saw three times as many submissions as its share of the national mortgage market. Fraud volume in New York and California was more than twice those states’ share of overall mortgage originations.

The majority of data and analysis at Financial Services Briefing is available only to subscribers. Each week, a small share of content from the service is made available to non-subscribers.

A series of tough measures, accompanied by equally tough talk, have made it clear that Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer is determined to prevent a crisis in Israel’s property market.

Israel’s latest directive imposing restrictions on the mortgage market was issued by its newly-appointed banking sector regulator, David Zaken, on April 28th and took effect on May 5th. It restricts the share of mortgages with adjustable rates that change at least once every five years to one-third of total lending. This restriction applies to all forms of financing in use in Israel, namely shekel floating-rate mortgages, loans linked to the consumer price index and loans linked to exchange rates (generally the shekel versus the dollar). According to the latest central bank data, these three channels comprise 48%, 32% and 6%, respectively, of total mortgage borrowing.

Read more at Financial Services Briefing: “Pre-emptive strike” (May 6th)

The IMF is worried about overheating in some Latin American economies, thanks to an “excessively stimulative environment”.

Although the institution is reluctant to label current conditions in the region’s largest markets bubbly, when it comes to credit growth the IMF acknowledges that concerns are rising about whether loan growth is becoming “excessive and eventually unsustainable.” Equity prices are also showing signs of “stretched valuations” in places like Chile, Colombia and Peru.

Despite being one of the region’s most active users of “macroprudential” measures to cool its economy, Peru stands out from the pack due to its rapid recent credit growth and, especially, sky-high equity valuations.

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