GRAPH: Exotic Currency risk by retail business of Austrian banks. Austrian banks are most exposed to forex loans in the Czech Republic and Romania. Chart courtesy Stratfor.Historically low interest rates on loans in Swiss francs have led consumers in major Central European countries such as Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic to acquire substantial loans, particularly mortgages, in francs. Currently, 53 percent of outstanding mortgages in Poland and about 60 percent of those in Hungary are denominated in francs.
The franc’s perceived stability amid growing eurozone troubles has strengthened it considerably in comparison to the euro and Central European currencies. This is not only worrisome to the consumers in the countries with significant franc-denominated debt, who now struggle to service their increasing debt load, but also for financial institutions that hold significant assets in Central Europe, such as that of Austria.
While new homeowners in Poland and Hungary have shied away from franc-denominated loans since the franc’s strengthening in the wake of the beginnings of the eurozone sovereign debt crisis in early 2010, the franc has traditionally been considered a stable currency with low associated interest rates and therefore a good alternative to the euro. The majority of Polish and Hungarian mortgage purchasers before 2008 took out their loans in francs at a time when, due to the economic dynamism of the emerging Polish and Hungarian economies, the zloty and forint were relatively strong in relation to the Swiss franc. The franc traded for 160 forints before the crisis; it currently trades for 224, a 40 percent increase. Similarly, the franc traded for 2.1 zlotys in July 2008 before jumping 57 percent to currently trade at 3.3. Moreover, the fluctuation in the zloty or forint value of the Swiss-denominated loan proportionally increases the debt repayment value. The compulsory nature of making a mortgage payment (the failure to pay one’s mortgage will eventually result in losing one’s home) means that debtors are unlikely to default despite the increase in monthly mortgage payment value. However, debtors are also likely to drastically cut all other spending when faced with the risk of default, thus undercutting domestic consumption — a major driver of the Polish economy in particular.
This certainly would not bode well for Europe, especially Austria. The 2008 financial crisis started in Europe when the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered a massive capital flight away from Central Europe, and a mortgage crisis in Hungary or Poland could potentially replicate these triggers, leading to contagion across the Continent.
Austria, particularly susceptible to contagion emanating from Central Europe, could act as the gateway for the crisis into the eurozone. The Austrian financial sector would have to incur these losses, potentially forcing Vienna to bail out its banks, focusing the markets and investors on Austria itself.