BRUSSELS (John O'Donnell) - European countries will support banks that fail stress tests if those lenders cannot raise capital from investors within six months, according to a draft EU document seen by Reuters.
The paper, being prepared for EU finance ministers to approve on Tuesday, is an about-face from promises by G20 policymakers in the wake of the financial crisis that taxpayers would never have to bail out banks again.
The European Banking Authority is due to announce next week the results of its latest stress tests of the region's top lenders -- 91 in all -- in another attempt to reassure investors that European banks have been rebuilt to withstand future shocks.
This latest round of tests has been touted as being more rigorous than previous attempts, in which few banks failed, and finance ministers' officials are drawing up plans for how to deal with the fallout.
Lenders that nearly fail the tests will be put on a critical watch list in case they deteriorate further, the document says. Those banks will be given until the end of September to draw up a plan to repair their finances and then three months to implement it.
News that EU governments appear serious about supporting banks that fail to maintain core capital of 5 percent in the face of several theoretical markets shocks lifted Bund futures and UK gilts.
"In essence that puts even more pressure on the periphery (euro zone countries) to come up with measures, not only to shore up their budgets, but to support their banking sectors, which they can ill afford to do," said Marc Ostwald, strategist at Monument Securities.
"It's basically a charge to safety on the back of this. This is a market which is living in mortal fear of anything to do with the euro zone and anything that puts the banking sector under more stress," Ostwald said.
The Italian/German 10-year yield spread hit fresh euro-era highs amid fears that already fiscally stretched countries like Italy might have to dig into their pockets to bail out banks that fail the test as well.
Shares in Italian bank UniCredit fell more than 5 percent on fears that Italy could be pulled into the debt crisis that has already forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal to take bailouts. UniCredit is the only big Italian bank that has not yet announced a capital increase.
Italian banking association chief Giuseppe Mussari, when asked about possible government intervention for banks failing the stress test, said this was not an issue for Italian banks.
PRIVATE SECTOR FIRST
According to the document, capital-raising plans should first be based on "private-sector measures, including ... retained earnings ... raising additional common equity or high-quality hybrid instruments from private investors, assets sales, mergers."
But if the search for private capital leads nowhere, then governments should be ready to step in.
Officials do, however, make provision for "the extreme case" if efforts to rehabilitate a bank fail and it threatens wider stability, recommending "a process of orderly restructuring and resolution."
The number of banks declared by the EBA to have failed will either encourage investors that Europe is now coming clean with its banking problems, or if the tests are deemed too lax again, they will hurt the EU's already battered credibility.
Previous stress tests were widely dismissed as too lax -- all Irish banks passed last year's test just months before the EU and International Monetary Fund had to bail them and the country out.
In the document, dated July 7, officials write that banks that miss the 5 percent capital pass mark will be given until the end of September at the latest to submit recapitalization plans, with a further three months to implement "private-sector measures."
"If the relevant banks are unable to implement a credible capital plan by the specified deadlines, the (government) stands ready to take necessary measures to maintain financial stability," officials write in the document seen by Reuters.
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 government bonds they own, issued by states such as Greece, lose value.
Those banks that come uncomfortably close to the 5 percent threshold will also be singled out for special attention.
"Banks where the (core tier 1) ratio is above but close to the 5 percent benchmark under the stress scenario will be subject to reinforced prudential scrutiny so as to ensure that there is no unexpected deterioration in their capital position."
(Additional reporting by Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Huw Jones in London; writing by Sophie Walker; Editing by Will Waterman)
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