Shares in UK lenders slide amid fears of renewed credit crunch but French, German and Swiss most at risk from Greek default.
Fears of a fresh banking crisis stalked the markets today as the risk of Greece defaulting on its debt repayments raised concerns about the exposure of major banks to indebted countries in Europe.
As analysts estimated that Britain's banks have a combined exposure of £100bn to Greece, Portugal and Spain – the three countries causing most concern on the financial markets – the Financial Services Authority was closely watching the markets and assessing exposures to the vulnerable countries.
After the ratings agency Standard & Poor's had downgraded Greek debt to "junk" yesterday, bank shares were knocked today but spared further falls as the downgrade of Spain's crucial credit rating came just as the stock market was closing. With UK banks standing to lose more in Spain than in Greece and Portugal, analysts said there might have been a more severe reaction if London had remained open longer today.
Analysts at Credit Suisse calculated that UK banks had £25bn of exposure to Greece and Portugal but £75bn to Spain, where the collapse in the property market has already forced banks such as Barclays to admit to bad debt problems and left Royal Bank of Scotland facing questions about its exposure.
"Lloyds' exposure to the three regions is likely to be negligible, we estimate that Barclays has £40bn exposure (predominantly loans in Spain and Portugal, excluding daily positions in Barclays Capital), and RBS has around £30bn–£35bn (again predominantly Spain, although we estimate £3bn to £4bn in Portugal and Greece as well)," the Credit Suisse analysts said.
Money markets, in which major banks lend to each other, also reflected the tension caused by the Greek downgrade with eurozone interbank lending rates enduring their biggest rise in nearly a year.
Much of the anxiety was targeted at French, German and Swiss banks. Howard Wheeldon, of BGC Partners, said: "If Greece defaults that means the pressure will then be felt and exerted on national banks that hold the Greek debt. That includes very many German, French and Swiss banks and it just may be that with so many banks involved one of these might just go down."
At today's annual meeting, RBS's chairman, Sir Philip Hampton, played down any exposure to Greece, while Lloyds' finance director, Tim Tookey, said on Tuesday that the bank had no "material [significant] exposure". Barclays publishes a trading update on Friday and will face questions about its exposure to the countries being downgraded.
In early trading today banks were the biggest fallers, with RBS tumbling 7%, Lloyds down by 6.5% and Barclays off 4%, though they recovered much of their losses by the time market closed.
Among continental European banks, analysts at Evolution calculated that Fortis, Dexia, CASA and Société Générale were most affected because of the value of their Greek debt holdings relative to their size.
According to Barclays Capital, UK banks account for only 3% of the exposure to Greek bonds, while data from the Bank for International Settlements shows that, at the end of 2009, Greece owed about $240bn (£160bn) overseas. Of this, France and Germany have the biggest exposures of $75bn and $45bn respectively.
Analysts expressed concern about the problems spreading. Daragh Quinn, banks analyst at Nomura, said: "Given the scale of the debt problem facing Greece, the prospect of some kind of debt rescheduling or even default are being considered as possibilities by the market. Sovereign risk concerns are also spreading to Portugal and Spain."
Only last week the International Monetary Fund, which has been called in to help fund the Greece deficit, warned about the impact of a sovereign risk crisis. "Concerns about sovereign risks could undermine stability gains and take the credit crisis into a new phase, as nations begin to reach the limits of public-sector support for the financial system and the real economy," the IMF said.
Credit Suisse analysts pointed out that not all the problems facing the markets were negative for the banking sector. "The increase in volatility should assist revenues at the investment banks, particularly for primary dealers like Barclays," the Credit Suisse analysts said.
"But there are clearly a number of important potential negatives. These include the potential for increased capital and liquidity trapping in affected sovereigns, or increased micro prudential requirements for local subsidiaries. Our bigger concern, however, is increased nervousness towards the UK," they added.
But while the timing of the downgrade of the Greek sovereign rate surprised the markets, there had been expectations for some time that the ratings agencies would eventually lose patience with the situation and take the decision to downgrade. This might have helped to cushion the markets' reaction to the situation, analysts said, and was likely to ensure that the major banks and other investors had already assessed their exposure to the Greece market before the downgrade took place.
The impact of a downgrade
The cost of borrowing for the Greek government briefly hit 38% in a stark illustration of the impact that a downgrade can have on the health of a nation's finances. Greece has been graded BB+ by the credit rating agency Standard & Poor's, official "junk" territory. It is now on a par with Azerbaijan, Colombia, Panama and Romania.
Britain is one of 11 countries with a prized 'triple A' rating, along with Australia, Denmark, Germany, France, the United States and Luxembourg. But it is the only one of the elite to have been put on "negative watch", a warning that it might face a future downgrade.
The cost of Greece borrowing on a two-year bond was as little as 1.3% in November, but has risen sharply amid fears of bankruptcy. By the end of tradingtoday, the cost had fallen back to 19%. In contrast, Britain is able to borrow on two-year bonds at a rate of 1.2%. S&P's lowest rating, CCC+, is assigned to Ecuador, which defaulted on $3.2bn of bonds last year.
Source: The Guardian