Spain Real Time Data Charts

Edward Hugh is only able to update this blog from time to time, but he does run a lively Twitter account with plenty of Spain related comment. He also maintains a collection of constantly updated Spain charts with short updates on a Storify dedicated page Spain's Economic Recovery - Glass Half Full or Glass Half Empty?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

More Comedy From The Spanish Banking System

Going through the Variant Perception report on the parlous state of Spain's banking system, I couldn't help stopping and thinking hard about this point from the Spanish newspaper Expansion.

The valuation of the guarantees of the mortgage book of the cajas and banks and of its real estate gains importance. The thirteen companies tied to financial entities represented 47% of all real estate appraisals in 2007. The valuation of these real estate assets has taken on new importance for banks in the context of the current economic recession. The valuation of the mortgage guarantees and of the real estate assets they are taking on through the courts and debt for equity swaps is key to calibrate the solvency of the financial system. This situation has placed the focus once again on the links between banks and the real estate appraisers that goes beyond in many cases a mere commercial relationship.

And then scratching my head, and scratching my head.

Now to put all this in plain English, we are talking here about the valuation of properties that are repossesed by the banks, and that the banks then have as part of their asset side, as goods awaiting sale. Now, Expansion raises the question: "how can we know that these assets are being fairly valued (that is how can we assess the quality of part of the asset side in the bank balance sheet) when the banks themselves own (directly or indirectly) nearly half of the companies doing the valuing.

Well, this is an issue, but in fact the problem is much worse than the Expansion writer seems to realise, since there is a technical (matter of fact detail) that they seem to miss here, and that is how the valuation of property which is repossed by the bank actually takes place.

The issue is fairly complicated, but please bear with me, since if you follow me through to the end you will see why all the rigmorole is important. Basically Spanish “escrituras de hipoteca” (or mortgage agreements) require that the “valor de tasacion” as well as the amount secured is specified in the deed. The “valor de tasacion” is in effect the valuation of the property and it is put in the deed so that the amount of the debt can never actually exceed the value of the assets being mortgaged.

However since the bank don’t know when they might need to "exercise" (or recover) the mortgage, they don’t really want to compromise themselves in advance, and the typical way of handling the problem legally is to state in the "escritura" (or title deed) that it is agreed that the "valor de tasacion" for purposes of "exercising" the mortgage will be equal to the total amount of the debt outstanding plus the rolled-up interest.

This is a very convenient solution for the banks, since it gives outsiders the impression that there is what one might call a valuation in the UK or US sense, when what is really involved is simply a formula applied in order to structure legal documentation.

The same thing happens when it comes to the time to “ejecutar una hipoteca” by auction, there being no other way in Spain. Since judges tend to give banks a really hard time if the asset is valued below the amount of the mortgage debt (ie the individual who owes the money has a debt even after the auction) banks normally take the easy way out and value the property at the amount of the debt rather than have the judge cancel the auction. Banks then theoretically have to pay tax on the transfer price to the registry (assuming they end up “adjudicando” the asset to themselves, i.e. taking possession), and the tax office - Hacienda - won’t accept anything other than the price at which the asset has been “adjudicado”.

The whole point here is that it ends up being very difficult for a bank to transfer an asset to itself in settlement of a debt at a figure which is substantially different from the amount of the debt unless there is a real possibility of getting the borrower to pay the balance.

So........ “valuations” in Spain effectively result from this complex and machine-like calculating process and are in no way comparable to what are known as valuations in - say - the UK market, nor does anyone involved in the process really think that such "values" really reflect what someone would pay for the property. Having got themselves into this position as a result of what is in the end for them a necessary procedure the banks basically just leave the figures exacty as they are. In simple Spanish a property valuation is an estimate of the property's “value”, whatever that might mean!

Which brings us right back to the Expansion article, and this quote:

"The valuation of the mortgage guarantees and of the real estate assets they are taking on through the courts and debt for equity swaps is key to calibrate the solvency of the financial system."

Well if this proces I have descibed above is the "key" to calibrating the solvency of the Spanish financial system, then the calibration process that results is going to be just as ad hoc and inadequate as the valuation process that gave rise to it. In a way all of this reminds me of the structured CDOs in the US case. Most of these got valued by computer programme simply because they were never traded. No-one ever really thought the valuations represented what they could be sold for even if that’s what hedge fund investors were told they were worth. Hence many were in the uncomfortable position of having them valued at 99.98 one minute and getting a bid at 30 the next.

Which again brings us back to Jonathan Tepper, and his Variant Perception report. As I undersand Jonathan, what he is arguing is that the situation in Spain now has certain structural similarities with the situation in the US before the sub-prime crisis broke out. The similarity is partly becuase there is little in the way of an early warning system available. The fact that the Bank of Spain's foreign exchange reserves are merely academic means that many professional bank analysts lack the early warning signs of an imminent balance of payments type crisis, and the mechanical and artificial system for valuing the growing number of homes accumulating in the banks' real estate portfolio means there may well be no small amber flashing light to watch for before all the dials suddenly luch over to red.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting reading, thanks. Any ideas which Caixa/Cajas are worst affected?

Edward Hugh said...

"Any ideas which Caixa/Cajas are worst affected?"

No, I'm afraid. We'll find this out when it happens.

Oriol Güell said...

Maybe you know it, it was published in last March and seemed pretty clear to me:

Edward Hugh said...

Thanks Oriol,

I didn't know this article. I think it puts the problem very clearly.


Anonymous said...

Spain's banks don't use marked to market appraisals for real estate? I'm shocked, shocked I tell you.

Another bit of fallout although not as significant is that friends of mine living in Spanish urbanizations are having a raft of non-payment of community fees. Lead often by the banks holding the foreclosed properties.

In additon I am seeing schemes where banks such as Caixa Catalunya are selling off their branch bank buildings and then signing leases to retain their use. You don't think they need the money do you?

Another fine article Edward, thank-you.