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205 Billion Reasons Why U.S. Investors Still Love Europe

Trevi fountain in Rome

The Lehman collapse was more than a decade ago and prices are at record highs in most European markets. But there are still plenty of distressed assets to be picked over.

Last year set new records for the sale of European nonperforming loans, according to data from Debtwire. Loans totaling a face value of €205B ($233B or £181B) traded hands.

Debtwire said it expected 2019 to be another frenetic year for loan sales in Europe, where there is still far more distress than in the U.S. or Asia.

European Banking Authority data show there is still more than €650B of nonperforming loans on European bank balance sheets, and the nonperforming loan ratio of European banks was still 6.5%, compared to 1.1% in the U.S. and 1.2% in Japan.

U.S. opportunity funds were the biggest buyers of European distressed deals, with Cerberus alone snapping up loans with a face value of €30B in Italy, Ireland, Germany and Spain. Lone Star bought €15B, Bain Capital bought €6B and Apollo bought €4B.

The buying opportunities are migrating around Europe. The UK has largely cleared up its bad loan problem, Ireland too is almost there and Spain is down to its last €50B or so of bad loans. That meant last year Italy was the major feeding ground, with €105B sold, Debtwire said. It expects the country to be the biggest source of loan sales again this year, with its banks still having €220B of bad debts.

Greece, which emerged from its international bailout program last year, is an increasingly popular destination. There were eight NPL deals in the country for loans with a face value of €14B in 2018, compared to just two deals in 2017. Bain Capital and Apollo are among the well-known firms to have completed deals there.