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Greek Debt Crisis Weighs on Banks

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Europe’s banks are tallying up the losses from Greek sovereign debt, and the picture is not a pretty one. Euro losses in the billions are taking a toll on earnings and banks are posting heavy hits in the midst of a need to find additional capital to meet new banking rules.

Reuters reported Thursday that Dexia, the Franco-Belgian bank that has already received a bailout, reported that it could be forced to go out of business. It declared a net loss for 2011 of 11.6 billion euros ($15.422 billion), thanks not just to Greek debt but also U.S. mortgage-backed securities. It has now booked a loss of 3.4 billion euros on Greek sovereign bonds. There is little left of Dexia in the wake of its breakup last year and the nationalization of its Belgian banking division.

Dexia is far from alone in losses, if other institutions are not in such dire straits. Credit Agricole reported a record quarterly net loss of 3.07 billion euros, 220 million euros charged off on Greek debt, and Jean-Paul Chifflet, its chief executive, said, “We are in the worst economic crisis since 1929.” More write-down on Greek debt are coming in the wake of the new bailout agreement, which has as one of its components a provision that private creditors will accept losses of 74% on sovereign bonds.

Franklin Pichard, director at Barclays France, said of the situation, “We can’t say that the write-downs are over. Even if some can say that the worst is over, we are only at a new stage in terms of provisioning and not necessarily at the end.” If Greece fails to recover after its latest rescue package, additional losses could be in the wings.

Royal Bank of Scotland, which Thursday posted a Q4 loss of almost 2 billion pounds, has marked its Greek bonds at a 79% loss for 2011. That amounts to 1.1 billion pounds ($1.729 billion). But Greece’s bonds are not the only problem banks face, and RBS head Stephen Hester said in the report, “We have reduced the balance sheet of RBS by over 700 billion pounds of assets. That is roughly twice the size of the entire national debt of Greece.”

Germany’s Commerzbank, which must find an additional 5.3 billion euros to meet new capitalization rules, took a 700 million euro loss on its Greek bond holdings in Q4 and has lost over 2 billion euros on them altogether. Its CEO Martin Blessing said in the report, “The high degree of uncertainty associated with the European sovereign debt crisis will … continue to pose challenges for us.”

Nevertheless, banks have still provided bonuses, if in a somewhat reduced amount. RBC provided its staff with nearly a billion pounds in bonuses in 2011, and Credit Agricole said its traders would receive bonuses–reduced by about 20%.


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