The ECB’s announcement of further rate cuts was the last thing Europe’s banking sector wanted to hear. Since the depths of the eurozone crisis in 2009 and the sovereign and banking crises that followed, Europe’s banks have struggled to get back onto the right footing. Despite the introduction of new capital requirements and rules to reduce the risk posed by too-big-to-fail institutions, the equity value of banks has been in steady decline.

For Germany, the banking problem is embodied by Deutsche Bank, whose failed attempt to merge with its smaller competitor Commerzbank has forced it to abandon its long-standing dream of becoming a major Wall Street player. Its only choice now is to drastically scale back its operations. The story throughout the rest of Europe is not much better. European bank PE ratios relative to the overall market are at the lowest levels since the early 1990s.

Europe’s banks are under pressure

Source: IBES, Heuristics

The IHS Markit Eurozone Composite PMI suggests that, while the services sector has seen some pickup, manufacturing remains under pressure, and in Germany has fallen into contraction. The survey indicates that GDP in the eurozone is rising at a 0.2% quarterly rate. France and Germany are likely growing at 0.2%, while Spain is slowing to 0.4% (from around 0.7%) and Italy is contracting at a 0.1% rate. Business expectations over the next year have fallen to the lowest level in around four years.

While recent market gains may be predicated on the assumption that more monetary accommodation will help avert slowing economic growth, the situation possibly spells further pain for the banks. Central banks are now in easing mode once again, and while the Fed has yet to cut rates officially, this is the market’s strong expectation – and they don’t see the Fed stopping with just one.

12% of respondents believe the Fed will cut by more that 150 bps by 2021

Source: BofA Merrill Lynch FX and Rates Sentiment Survey

What this means is that investors looking for financial services exposure need to tread carefully. For the banks, lower rates tend to mean more pressure on lending margins, which acts as a headwind to growth. While a beaten down banking sector can spell opportunity for investors, from a portfolio perspective it’s essential to think carefully about what sort of exposure you’re looking for. For those seeking value in the banks, be prepared for a period of pain if the low rate environment continues.

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