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European Banks Prepare For As Many As 15 As Stress Test Failures

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LONDON (Steve Slater and Huw Jones) - A health check of European banks is expected to show that as many as 15 lenders need more capital to withstand a prolonged recession, with criticism growing that the tests do not encompass the impact of a Greek default.

Europe's bank "stress test," to be published at 1600 GMT, will make 90 lenders reveal for the first time their profit forecasts, a breakdown of their sovereign bond holdings and funding costs, and will force the weakest to recapitalize.

The International Monetary Fund has warned Europe it is taking too long to rebuild its banking system and has lagged the repair work done in the United States since the financial crisis, while the threat of the Greek debt crisis spreading to bigger countries such as Spain and Italy has rattled investors and dragged European bank shares to a two-year low.

"We are not expecting any significant surprises from this stress test," said Carlo Mareels, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets who expects the result to show a total capital shortfall of 30-35 billion euros, a fraction of the 110 billion euros expected to be needed for a second bailout of Greece.

"Markets are likely to be dominated by views on the sustainability of sovereign debt. As long as there is no definitive answer to this, there is not much space for a stable recovery in the bank space," Mareels said.

Euro zone sources told Reuters two weeks ago that 10 to 15 banks are likely to fail the test, with casualties expected in Spain, Greece, Germany and Portugal although no large bank is expected to fail.

Critics say the health check fails to reflect market expectations that Greece will default on its debt in some form, which would pile up losses for German and French banks that hold large amounts of the country's debt.

The EBA is not forcing banks to explicitly haircut sovereign bonds held in their long-term banking book, but has told banks to include the estimated hit of potential losses from holdings based on a theoretical four notch credit rating downgrade, which would mean a low rate country like Greece had defaulted.

Under the test, banks would take a 15 percent "haircut" on Greek bond holdings, while most market experts expect to see up to half the value of those bonds wiped out at some point.

Fears the Greek crisis will spread to Spain and Italy have caused a jump in borrowing costs for those countries and their banks, prompting concern lenders are not resilient enough to cope with potential losses if the crisis deepens.


Some banks moved to bolster capital ahead of the results, though it is too late to affect them.

Austria's Volksbanken, which has failed according to a source with knowledge of the test, late on Thursday sold its eastern European arm VBI to Russia's Sberbank.

Greece's EFG Eurobank said it was in talks to sell a majority stake in its Turkish unit Eurobank Tekfen, and Greek peer Piraeus said it was in talks to sell its Egyptian business to Standard Chartered.

Volksbanken did not say how much it would raise from the sale, but banking sources have said it could be around 590 million euros ($835 million). It helps Volksbanken show it can shore up its balance sheet, while Greek banks are under pressure to strengthen their capital to cope with the economic crisis at home.

A poll last month by Goldman Sachs of 113 investors, including long-only investors and hedge funds, expected nine banks to fail the 5 percent core capital pass mark in the face of a theoretical slide in stock, bond and property prices during a two-year recession.

Banks that fail must produce firm plans by September on how they will plug capital shortfalls by the year-end, with their home government ready to step in with taxpayers' money if needed.

Lenders that scrape through the test will also be expected to shore up their capital buffers.

This is the third, toughest and most comprehensive test of lenders in the European Union since the global financial crisis, which began four years ago -- last year's gave Irish banks a clean bill of health shortly before they collapsed into state control.

Investors and analysts will be given 3,000 data points on each bank, ranging from profit forecasts to quality of capital buffers, compared with just 100 pieces of information last year.

Banks have already warned that investors could be unnerved by so much data but the EBA says more transparency is better, allowing analysts to run their own tests so they feel they have a complete picture, removing much of the uncertainty.

But there have been problems as the release date neared.

Germany's Helaba ruled itself out of the stress test, saying the regulator's capital rules were too strict, and two Spanish banks that will fail blamed the regulator for being too strict on the use of capital that can be included.

($1 = 0.706 Euros)

(Reporting by Huw Jones and Steve Slater; Editing by Mike Peacock)

Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

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