FRANKFURT/BRUSSELS (Marc Jones and John O'Donnell) - Up to one in six European banks is set to fail an EU-wide financial health check, according to euro zone sources close to the stress-testing, as officials scramble to set up backstops for those at risk.
The result, which the European Central Bank (ECB) and others hope will persuade investors that the EU is finally coming clean about the extent of its banks' problems, will put pressure on reluctant states to prop up lenders if they cannot raise money themselves.
Euro zone sources said the European Banking Authority is set to announce within weeks that between 10 and 15 of the 91 banks being scrutinized in the tests had failed, with casualties expected in Greece, Germany, Portugal and Spain.
The checks will provide the first picture of the health of the region's banks since a previous round a year ago was deemed too lax. In that round, Ireland's banks were all given a clean bill of health -- just months before their difficulties drove the country to seek an international bailout.
The new checks will measure how well the core capital that banks rely on to absorb losses such as unpaid loans holds up when exposed to an economic dip or fall in property prices.
They also gauge the impact on banks should the bonds they own issued by states such as Greece lose value. But the tests stop short of assessing the full impact of a country default including the likely resultant freeze in interbank lending.
In the drive for credibility, the European Banking Authority (EBA), which runs the tests and the ECB, which sets the macro economic scenarios, are pushing for more banks to fail than last year's seven.
"How many do we expect to fail? I would say 10 to 15," said one senior euro zone central banking source.
The EBA wants the number of banks that do not pass the tests to be around that level to show the examinations are serious, said a second source, adding that the authority did not want to push for more, for fear it could spark panic and intensify the euro zone's debt crisis.
"In order to demonstrate that it is credible, the EBA would need to show that the number of bank failures is significant, without being substantial," said the source. "A number in the teens is about right."
A spokeswoman for the EBA said testing was still under way and declined to comment on what she called speculation about the outcome.
TECHNICAL AND POLITICAL
The tests are technical, as well as political. While the EBA and ECB want to show up the failures, national regulators want to stop their banks appearing on the list, concerned they would look incompetent for having failed to spot such problems themselves.
EU authorities want to expose failures around the EU, said the second source, avoiding too many problems in weak countries, such as Spain, as that could prompt international lenders to shun the country and its banks.
"They are going to find a way of preventing one center ... from sticking out," said the source. "If it were to be Spain, it would be very bad news. Failing German banks in a stress tests would be much safer."
The EBA, which is due to announce the results in mid-July to coincide with a meeting of EU finance ministers, also faces pressure from governments wanting to avoid failures that may force them to come up with financial support.
A dispute with Germany for failing to apply the stress-test criteria as strictly as it should recently delayed the conclusion of the stress tests by some weeks, said one EU official.
"Every national regulator will be fighting for none of their banks to be on the list," said the source. "It's a mark of incompetence. It's a reputational issue and it's an issue of money."
High-level officials from European finance ministries are now working on how to help those given a failing grade.
Andrea Enria, head of the EBA, called on governments last week to put plans in place to help banks that fail or are shown to be vulnerable.
On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the EBA emphasized that governments must not be slow to plug any capital holes exposed in the checks.
"It is important that concrete and decisive actions by the banks and authorities are taken following the results, including ensuring that credible capital plans ... are taken to address deficiencies."
Although the EBA is insisting on the publication of each bank's sovereign debt holdings by maturity as well as size, it is ultimately the number of banks to fail that will establish the credibility of the checks.
"If it was the same as last time -- when seven failed, next to nothing -- then no one would believe it," said one source. "But you cannot fail 50, or the banking system would collapse."
(Additional reporting by Paul Taylor, editing by Rex Merrifield)
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