French banks under the spotlight

Euro Zone: Can French banks exposed to the Greek debt crisis weather the financial storm?
A French flag flies next to a BNP Parisbassign in Paris.
A French flag flies next to a BNP Parisbassign in Paris.

In the deepening European debt crisis, turning on the radio news has become a test of nerves.

One presenter on the French station France Info began a midday bulletin with the sombre warning that the main story was not so much about a financial crisis as financial crises.

There was the continuing saga of the Greek debt mountain - that following the weekend's deliberations by the Group of 20 (G20) developed and emerging economies is now seen as making default a virtual certainty, according to reports - and its impact on French banks, the downgrading of Italy's credit rating and the stock market slump.

Not far behind was a newspaper report from London stating that the German industrial giant Siemens had withdrawn €500 million (Dh2.47 billion) from one large French bank and placed it at the European Central Bank (ECB).

If this did not quite amount to a run on the bank's deposits, it was hardly an amount the casual customer might extract from a cash machine.

The Financial Times report did not identify the bank, but industry sources in France were quick to name Société Générale, one of four French banks exposed to Greek debt. Siemens refused to comment, although even this was clouded in confusion.

News agencies reported that the company had dismissed the story as factually inaccurate only for Siemens to insist, while otherwise remaining silent, that it did not recognise any such comment.

It is true that big players in business routinely move money around in pursuit of better deals.

But in the absence of a dependable explanation, speculation inevitably included reference to the perceived state of the bank. Even the initial report suggested that although higher interest rates at the ECB were a factor, the decision was partly based on concerns about the future financial health of the bank.

It may be significant that Frédéric Oudéa, the chief executive of Société Générale, gave an interview to the French daily newspaper Le Figaro insisting - as Michel Pébereau, the chairman of BNP Paribas, had also done - that his bank did not need to be recapitalised and that its liquidity was under control.

But the fact remains much of the bad news dominating bulletins dwells on the extent of the Greek debt burden carried by these two banks, along with Crédit Agricole and Banque Populaire.

The IMF says European banks have already had €200bn of capital whittled away by the debt crisis, a figure some believe could rise to €300bn.

Since the end of July, in the French banks' chapter of the sorry story, share prices have fallen by more than half at Société Générale (59.7 per cent), Crédit Agricole (54.7 per cent) and BNP Paribas (52.6 per cent).

This represents the worst sequence for French banking since the credit crunch began in 2008. A welcome rally in trading on Friday, on hopes of action at the G20 meeting, failed to convince analysts a sustained reversal of fortunes was imminent.

Why, asks Monsieur Tout le Monde, the French equivalent of the man in the street, are our banks so exposed?

One answer is simple; French bankers embarked on a journey of expansion, imagining the road to be smooth without threat of the economic car crash lying ahead.

"They were all anxious to develop," says Jacques Reland, the head of European research at the Global Policy Institute in Paris. "France has substantial banks and they wanted a strategic developing presence all over Europe."

Mr Reland described French banks' exposure to Greece's total estimated debt of €350bn as "opaque".

But on a calculation by investment specialists at UBS, the combined exposure of the four French banks adds up to €9.36bn, the largest chunk of the European total of €91.76bn.

Germany, which has no fewer than 11 banks caught up in the Greek tragedy, is next with exposure totalling €7.9bn. A little more than half the risk (€45.97bn) is carried by Greek interests with sizeable loads also borne by Belgium (€4.07bn), the Netherlands (€3.16bn), the UK (€2.27bn) and Cyprus (€4.94bn).

Among individual banks, BNP Paribas shoulders the greatest weight (€5.05bn) followed by Société Générale (€2.5bn), BPCE (€1.18bn) and Crédit Agricole (€631m).

"I do not think private customers of these banks need to worry about their investments," Mr Reland says.

The government guaranteed losses of up to €200,000, he adds, and it stretches belief to envisage the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, allowing a collapse with the 2012 presidential elections looming.

All the same, key questions arise as Europe fumbles towards what it hopes will prove a lasting solution.

Will the latest Greek austerity measures work in the face of domestic unrest and international scepticism? Will euro-zone nations accept the erosion of sovereign power and adopt a more federal fiscal system?

Can the weaker, job-starved European economies persuade a deeply reluctant Germany that inflation - the enemy of savers - may be the most effective way out of a projected recession, unsustainable borrowing and high unemployment?

In France, opinion on the state of the banks divides along predictable lines. BNP Paribas points to strong first-half trading figures this year. Mr Sarkozy's budget minister Valérie Pécresse insists the institutions are soundly managed and solid, with no solvency or liquidity problems.

"Since 2008 French banks have increased their capital by €50bn," she told French television last week. "That means they are using profits to boost their capital. I add that French banks have good ratings, amongst the best European banks."

But Alexis Koagne, a Natixis analyst quoted in a Dow Jones report, adopted a different tone: "French banks can come out and try to reassure markets as many times as they want, fundamentals don't seem to matter anymore anyway. The fundamental problem is that markets do not seem to believe in the euro zone anymore."

Even Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF chief now back in France after his brush with the US justice system, is offering his views.

During a television interview he turned his attention to finance, warning Europe had failed to confront reality.

And that reality, he argued, was that government and banks must drop the pretence Greece can fight its own way out of its crisis. "We can say Greeks will pay on their own, but they can't," he said. "There is a loss and it must be taken by governments and banks … governments haven't solved the problem, they just delayed it, and the snowball grows."

* with agencies

Published: September 26, 2011 04:00 AM


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