It has been a tough year for European business and consumers, as waves of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions took their toll. Entire sectors were effectively shut down, with many surviving on government support and employee furlough programmes, as well as tapping liquidity markets and taking advantage of any debt relief measures on offer.
Travel restrictions and economic uncertainty also impacted the NPL market. Though activity shut down in the second quarter of 2020, the final quarter saw a partial recovery, with deals worth €28.6 billion signed in Q4 2020 alone. However, price gaps continued to impact some deals. The first month of 2021 saw deals close that were worth €3.3 billion, as some deals paused due to lockdown conditions managed to compete. Looking to the rest of 2021, Greek NPL deals are keeping the NPL pipeline filled.
The impact of COVID-19 on loan quality has yet to be felt. Many companies have managed to avoid slipping into insolvency thus far, whether through government stimulus measures or agreements with lenders, but once those measures wind down and lenders reassess the creditworthiness of their borrowers, that is likely to change. Provisioning levels at top European banks in the UK, Spain, France, Italy and DACH reflect this reality, almost doubling year-on-year from 2019 to 2020, according to Debtwire.
Governments across Europe recognise the challenge they are facing. A spike in NPLs among lenders could spell trouble for those same lenders, prompting the EU to consider regulatory options that will help smooth the process. Standardised templates, securitisation and boosting secondary NPL trading are all on the cards, as regulatory bodies and lenders take a proactive stance to prepare for a potentially rocky road ahead. Taking these steps also opens the door to more buyers entering the market—including some that were once active but may have stepped aside as things cooled, including PE firms, banks and other debt servicers. It may also encourage partnerships to invest in NPL portfolios, which may also drive the speed of portfolio disposals in the coming year.
New market opportunities in sight?
At a regional level, Italy and Greece remain NPL hotspots, as the securitisation of NPL portfolios coupled with state-backed guarantee schemes continue to help reduce NPL stocks among banks. But other markets are now showing signs of activity, and investors are watching very closely.
In Spain, moratoria on mortgage and non-mortgage debts are set to expire, prompting many Spanish banks to prepare for an uptick in NPL stocks—the four top banks in the country put aside provisions of €22 billion in 2020, up from €15 billion in 2019.
Many expected UK banks to move quickly in the event of an expected rise in NPLs, given the high economic fallout of multiple lockdowns. Top UK bank provisions rocketed by 3.1x year-on-year, to €21.2 billion, as banks braced for loan losses.
Ireland, France, Portugal and even typically cautious Germany (where SME loans are expected to be the largest source of NPL stock rise) are all on the radar for investors. But the degree of rise in problem loans still has a large degree of variability, with the speed of economic recovery and the end of huge levels of government support still unclear.