Policy brief

Risk reduction through Europe’s distressed debt market

The resolution of non-performing loans (NPLs), a stock of roughly €870 billion in the EU banking industry, is central to the recovery of Europe’s bank

Publishing date
18 January 2018

A version of this Policy Contribution was originally prepared as the in-depth section of Analysis of developments in EU capital flows in the global context, a report by Bruegel for the European Commission. The study is also available on the European Commission’s webpage.

The market for distressed debt will need to play a more prominent role in Europe’s emerging strategy to tackle the legacy of non-performing loans (NPLs). This market could speed up NPL resolution and allow greater flexibility in bank balance sheet management. Investors could contribute crucial skills and possibly capital to the process of workout and restructuring.

The loan sale process potentially suffers from a number of market imperfections which manifest themselves in high valuation gaps, and in the market failing to cover certain asset types.
In Europe, turnover from distressed debt sales remains limited relative to the total stock of €870 billion in non-performing loans, and the additional stock of €1.1 trillion of so-called non-core banking assets, which banks also seek to divest in this market.

There has so far been little market demand for the bulk of unsecured assets among small and medium-sized companies and other corporate borrowers, loans held by smaller banks with their higher NPL ratios, or exposures to larger enterprises that could benefit from comprehensive debt restructuring and additional finance.

Significant further supply might now come into the market as stricter supervisory guidelines are implemented, and as new accounting guidelines force higher provisioning levels. Improved national restructuring and insolvency regimes are beginning to attract a wider range of investors.

An initiative by EU finance ministers to improve transparency around loan quality and foster greater liquidity through transaction platforms might lower transaction-specific fixed costs somewhat. More decisive public support, for instance through asset management companies or in securitisation structures, might be needed.

As a significant share of Europe’s banking assets might move into the hands of little-known investors, some of the benefits of relationship banking could be lost, and the conduct of the loan servicers will come into the focus of regulators.

About the authors

  • Alexander Lehmann

    Alexander Lehmann joined Bruegel in 2016 and was a non-resident fellow until 2023. His work at Bruegel focused on EU banking and capital markets, private and sovereign debt issues and sustainable finance.

    Alex also heads a graduate programme at the Frankfurt School of Finance and serves as a member of the consultative group on sustainable finance at the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) in Paris.

    In numerous past and ongoing advisory roles Alex has worked with EU and emerging market policy makers on capital market development, financial stability and crisis recovery. Until 2016, he was the Lead Economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) where he led the strategy and economics unit for central Europe and Baltic countries. Previously, Alex was on the staff of the International Monetary Fund and held positions as Adjunct Professor at the Hertie School of Governance (Berlin) and as Affiliate Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House). He holds graduate degrees from the London School of Economics and the College of Europe, and a D.Phil. in Economics from Oxford University.

    His academic, policy and market-related work has generated extensive publications on international finance and regulation. This is regularly presented in teaching, media commentary and industry conferences.

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