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EU Bank Stress Tests: 7 Banks Fail

PAN PYLAS   07/23/10 05:15 PM ET   AP

Europe Bank Stress

LONDON — The results are in: Only seven of 91 European banks flunked the "stress tests" aimed at clearing up market fears about the strength of the continent's banking system amid the debt crisis.

Was the much-anticipated test tough enough to be credible? The verdict will come on Monday, when European stock markets reopen.

Some analysts were scoffing already on Friday.

"The stress tests do not seem that stressful and it is looking more like a political whitewash rather than a genuine attempt to reassure financial markets that eurozone banks have balance sheets that could really withstand sovereign risk shocks," said Neil MacKinnon, global macro strategist at VTB Capital.

"They are delaying the day of reckoning," he said.

It had been thought that some banks needed to fail for the exercise to be accepted as credible, and some did – five in Spain and one each in Germany and Greece. But analysts still argued the results showed the tests weren't rigorous enough – and the euro was trading flat after Friday's announcement, at just below $1.29.

However, the stock market rose in New York on the news.

If financial markets take the view the tests were not tough enough when European trading resumes Monday, that could further expose the European Union to charges it has failed to rise to the debt crisis within its borders.

In total the seven banks have to raise $4.5 billion (euro3.5 billion) to shore up their finances, said the Committee of European Banking Supervisors, the regulator charged with conducting the stress tests.

That's far lower than some analysts had been predicting, and the CEBS said Europe's banks have, over the past couple of years, gone a long way to shoring up their balance sheets.

Some analysts were unconvinced, noting that similar tests last year in the United States resulted in 10 of the 19 banks tested being required to raise $75 billion.

"After economists, journalists, credit rating agencies and officials spend the weekend analyzing the results, the currency markets are likely to react negatively on Monday," said Mansoor Mohi-uddin, managing director of foreign exchange strategy at Swiss banking giant UBS AG.

Anxiety about Europe's banks has mounted in tandem with the government debt crisis, which led to a euro110 billion ($142 billion) international bailout of Greece and a $1 trillion backstop for other troubled governments if they need it.

The worry was the banks were holding government bonds from the likes of Greece, especially as their finances had already been battered by the recession. Banks became reluctant to lend to each other and many grew more dependent on emergency funds from the European Central Bank for their day to day operations.

Policymakers in Europe hope the stress test will reassure markets worried about hidden bank losses from the crisis.

The EU called the results a resounding vote of confidence that "confirms the overall resilience" of the continent's banking system.

Christine Lagarde, France's finance minister, said the tests were "tough" and "very comprehensive and as a result I would suggest that those results should be very credible and should raise the confidence in European banks."

In Washington, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner praised the EU's "significant effort to increase disclosure on the conditions of individual European financial institutions and enhance market stability."

The CEBS said the seven banks would see their capital positions fall too low for them to weather a steep fall in the price of the government bonds many of them hold.

Still, this worst-case scenario, dubbed "sovereign shock," stops short of an outright debt default by an EU government. Many analysts predict Greece will eventually have to restructure its debt – a polite word for default, under which creditors are paid over a longer period of time.

Germany's already-nationalized lender Hypo Real Estate Holding AG failed the test, but that had been widely expected. So far, the bank, which does not expect to return to profit before 2012, has received capital injections worth euro7.7 billion ($10 billion) from the German government's bank rescue fund and loan guarantees of more than euro100 billion.

There had been speculation in the run-up to the publication of the results that some of Germany's state-controlled regional banks – the landesbanken – would fail to clear any stringent hurdles. However, only NordLB came close to joining Hypo, though it managed to scrape by.

As expected, Spain notched up the most casualties, with five of its small savings banks – the so-called cajas – deemed to have insufficient capital to deal with future adverse shocks following the collapse of the country's property boom. The five – none of them listed on stock markets – were Diada, Unnim, Espiga, Banca Civica and Cajasur, which was bailed out by the Bank of Spain in May.

Greece's ATE bank failed and confirmed it would go ahead with a capital increase, which will involve the highly indebted Greek government itself, the main shareholder.

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Associated Press Writers Juergen Baetz in Berlin, Greg Keller in Paris, Elena Becatoros and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Colleen Barry in Milan and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this story.

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Filed by Nate C. Hindman  |