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A year ago, Germany's financial regulator BaFin warned that the toxic debts of the country's banks would blow up "like a grenade" once hidden losses from the credit crisis caught up with them.
An internal memo at the time showed that BaFin feared write-offs might top €800bn (£688bn), twice the reserves of Germany's financial institutions. Nobody paid much attention. But the regulator's shock move on Tuesday night to stop short trading on banks, insurers, eurozone bonds – as well as a ban credit default swaps (CDS) on sovereign debt – has left markets wondering whether the slow fuse on Germany's banking system has finally detonated.
BaFin spoke of "extraordinary volatility" and said CDS moves were jeopardising "the stability of the financial system as a whole". It is unsettling that the BaFin should opt for such drastic measures a week after EU leaders thought they had overawed markets with a €750bn rescue package and direct purchases of Greek, Portuguese and Spanish debt by the European Central Bank. BaFin's heavy-handed move seems to proclaim that the rescue has failed.
"The market is left asking what skeletons are lurking in the cupboard," said Marc Ostwald from Monument Securities. The short ban follows a report by RBC Capital Markets that circulated widely in the City accusing German banks of failing to come clean on 75pc of their €45bn exposure to Greek debt.
German lenders have the lowest risk-weighted capital ratios in the world after Japan. They were slow to rebuild safety cushions after the sub-prime crisis, and now face a second set of losses on Club Med holdings. Reporting rules have let Landesbanken delay write-downs, turning them into Europe's "zombie" banks.