History of nationalisation of SNS unfolds quickly .... it's not the endgame that matters

Yesterday evening, the Dutch RTL-news released a number of confidential documents about the supervisory and regulatory discussions on SNS Reaal Group. And while it could be expected that bits and pieces of this process would slowly enter the public domain, I must say this is a very rapid disclosure. It also allows a further reflection on the very recent financial history: the nationalisation of SNS Reaal Group.

The endgame
The details of the latest discussions, just before the nationalisation, are highly fascinating. We see the board of SNS fighting for their bank, clinging onto the hope that:
- the regulator sees that the valuation of the possible losses in property finance should be lowered,
- hence, nationalisation cannot be considered a valid legal option (as any loss would not be sufficient enough to trigger the legal nationalisation bazooka),
- thus: the CVC offer stands a good chance of continuing.

Meanwhile the regulators' view is also quite clear. DNB, the central bank and supervisor, has been very patient and lenient in allowing the search for possible private-public solutions. But at some point they have to draw the line. This point arrives when the SNS-CEO and CFO explain in January to the Minister that it is either the CVC bid or nationalisation. Perhaps they hoped that this would force a momentum for the CVC-rescue.

Instead, this statement may have finally convinced the Ministry of Finance and DNB that a nationalisation was indeed the only option. The proposed deal of CVC did indeed, as our Minister of Finance explained during a press conference, contain too many goodies for CVC with too little compensation for the State. Furthermore, as I was expecting, CVC was asking for something impossible: the committment of the supervisor not to intervene in the coming years. In sum, the private-public rescue action was nowhere near to a solution that suited both the business and the regulatory constraints.

2011- and later... working towards a solution
The RTL-papers also clarify the run-up to the nationalisation. It's interesting to note that at the end of 2010, the supervisor observes that SNS Reaal Group is undercapitalized and unable to really wheather a further storm in the market or the media. From that moment on, all work is geared towards eliminating the risks in the portfolio and getting SNS Reaal to take all necessary action, including the sale of parts of the company.

I think 2011 also marks the start of a period in which both DNB as a supervisor and the Ministry of Finance become aware of the fact that some form of rescue may be necessary. But it's a different rescue this time. There are obstacles that stand in the way of the usual solution: inviting the biggest Dutch players and working out a way to safeguard continuity. This did still work for the smaller Friesland Bank (absorbed by Rabobank), but is impossible for the more complex SNS Reaal Group.

As FT Alphaville puts it, the SNS demise was an accident waiting to happen. While bank board and supervisor were doing their utmost to save the bank, the losses and problems were just too much. In this respect it should be noted that in these years, the politicians did a good job at confusing and complicating the financial markets with their prolongued sovereign crisis. In combination with all the post-financial crisis measures, this meant that there were no buyers or parties in the market that would be interested in helping solve the SNS problem. At the same time, SNS could benefit from the crisis by using ECB-funding to buy time.

Essentially we can see that the years 2011 until the beginning of 2013 all eyes were focused on getting to save SNS Reaal. And in that time the so-called Intervention-law (allowing nationalisation) was also being developed and ratified. It think that this law and the principles of trying to seek a private solution within its regulatory framework, focused the minds of all persons involved, whether bankers, supervisors or civil servants.

But is it the endgame that matters?
We should note that the true accident happened in 2006 when SNS did not limit its risks when taking over Bouwfonds Propery Finance. In doing so they exposed themselves to a continued drain on their profits and capital, which they were unable to neutralize. When the financial crisis further evolved and lead to a further worldwide change in risk and capital attitudes, the situation had essentially become unsustainable. SNS Reaal had become, in the Netherlands, the elephant in the room, that no one dared to discuss.

This leaves us with an interesting but highly hypothetical scenario. What would have happened if, at the end of 2010, the supervisor and Ministry of Finance would have stepped back a bit further. Suppose that they would have outlined that any resolution for SNS Reaal Group would have to occur in a stressed market. Which is a market in which it is hard to expect to get a good deal. And thus, they could have argued, while the financial stability of the market was not (yet) at stake, nationalisation of SNS Reaal or ringfencing of some of its activities were essentially the only two options in 2010.

My guess is that the public might have resented such an approach as being too premature. Yet, if we truly wish proactive supervision, we must also be willing to allow unexpected and early interventions, rather than just the end-of-the-road nationalisations. And it is in this respect that the current Intervention law doesn't help. It details a roadmap for the last part of the journey of a bank in despair, and thus focuses all energy of the involved players on remaining within that roadmap. As such it blocks and diverges the attention from other solutions that might have been possible and useful on the earlier bits of the road.