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Major bank CEO warns that the perfect economy right now 'is exactly when things may go wrong'

  • Low interest rates have been supportive for the world economy, according to ING Group's Chief Executive Ralph Hamers.
  • But banks have to be "very cautious" at this moment in time because "this is exactly when things may go wrong," he said.

The CEO of a major European bank offered a stark warning for his industry on Thursday, suggesting that years of accommodative policy by global central banks could quickly turn sour.

Low interest rates have been supportive for the world economy, according to ING Group's Chief Executive Ralph Hamers, but banks have to be "very cautious" at this moment in time because "this is exactly when things may go wrong," he said.

"You have to be careful and very cautious not to take too much risk at this moment in time because everything looks so perfect," he told CNBC on the sidelines of the International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington D.C. on Thursday.

On Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said some of the world's largest financial institutions could be set to struggle to remain sufficiently profitable in the current economic environment.

The Washington D.C.-based institute listed nine banks likely to struggle with profitability over the coming years including Citigroup, Barclays, Deutsche Bank and a few Japanese lenders. And while the largest Dutch financial services company was not included in the IMF's list, Hamers admitted he was "worried" by the current climate.

"I'm worried from the perspective that money is cheap, there is a lot of money in the market looking for yield (and) that is causing asset prices to go up," he added.

The European Central Bank (ECB) has said it believes banks under its jurisdiction are prepared for an unexpected increase in interest rates over the coming months while traders also anticipate the Federal Reserve will hike in December. However, several lenders have become frustrated with the somewhat glacial approach to monetary tightening from such central banks and Hamers suggested that now is the time for the ECB to "start looking at when we move out of quantitative easing."

Earnings at some banks have suffered due to the current low interest rate environment, as it crushes the margins they make between interest rates on loans and deposits.

Ralph Hamers, chief executive officer of ING Groep NV, gestures while speaking at the Handelsblatt banking summit in Frankfurt, Germany, on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. Deutsche Bank Chief Executive Officer John Cryan called for an end to the era of cheap money in Europe, saying that the prolonged period of rock-bottom interest rates is starting to inflate asset bubbles and putting the bank at a disadvantage to U.S. rivals.
Alex Kraus | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Ralph Hamers, chief executive officer of ING Groep NV, gestures while speaking at the Handelsblatt banking summit in Frankfurt, Germany, on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. Deutsche Bank Chief Executive Officer John Cryan called for an end to the era of cheap money in Europe, saying that the prolonged period of rock-bottom interest rates is starting to inflate asset bubbles and putting the bank at a disadvantage to U.S. rivals.

Potential flashpoints

When asked where other risks to ING's profitability could emerge, Hamers said something as simple as a geopolitical issue had the potential to change the mood in financial markets.

He cited escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, an upcoming election in Italy and the ongoing turmoil regarding Catalonian independence as potential flashpoints for investors.

"You only need a spark there to change the mood in the markets (and) for confidence to go away," Hamers said.