Property values at root of conflict over Spanish banks

13th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Are financial experts too alarmist about the Spanish banking system or is the central bank over-optimistic?

Analysts say the answer lies in the real value of the banks' vast property assets, something which still remains unclear.

In recent weeks financial experts have sought to determine how much capital the banks need to clean up their balances sheets in order to respond to tough new government requirements aimed at shoring up confidence in the banks and the country's battered economy.

Ratings agency Moody's put the figure at 40-50 billion euros ($55-70 billion) while Fitch estimated it at between 38 and 96.7 billion, Goldman Sachs at 22 to 59 billion and Morgan Stanley at 40 billion.

The government insisted that the final figure would not exceed 20 billion.

Late Thursday, the official amount from the Bank of Spain was well below even that ceiling at just 15.152 billion.

But the markets, which are looking for more financial stability -- and transparency -- in Spain, were unconvinced.

The Madrid stock market closed down 0.36 percent on Friday after falling 1.17 percent the previous day.

"This (central bank) figure is based on the principle that the value of the banks' real estate assets is realistic and will not decline in the future," said one broker, who requested anonymity.

The calculations by analysts are "more demanding" and "take into account a future decline in the value of the assets."

Jurgen Michels, an analyst at Citi, said "the required capital need calculated by the Bank of Spain is much lower than the widely expected need of more than 50 billion euros to recapitalise Spanish banks.

"The 15.5 billion euros seems too little to solve the capital problems of Spanish banks which are likely to increase further amid an ongoing deterioration in assets, mainly for domestic real estate."

Natixis analyst Jesus Castillo said: "Our work is to foresee risks, so we look at stress scenarios.

"I arrived at a figure of 80 billion euros," but "in a scenario in which the default ratios on loans on property and construction doubled" and in which "the property market declines by 50 percent."

Spain's economy plunged into recession in late 2008 when the bubble burst on the real estate market. It only emerged last year with meagre growth.

And the banking sector, which had been handing out mortgages with abandon, now has more than 100 billion euros of problematic loans and owns buildings and sites that they have seized and whose value has plummeted.

These are "the bodies in the cupboard," said the business daily El Economista on Friday.

"There is no reference price, it's very subjective: everyone thinks that the price of real estate will slump 20-30 percent, but it is very difficult to show," said the broker.

Said Raj Badiani, an analyst at IHS Global Insight: "It remains difficult to quantify the banks' capitalisation needs with confidence given the inability to calculate accurately the actual fall in property prices since they peaked in early 2008."

In a sign that analysts give little credibility to the estimates of the Spanish authorities, Moody's on Thursday morning downgraded the country's credit rating without waiting for the official estimate from the Bank of Spain later in the day.

But Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero defended the central bank's figure as "reasonable, acceptable."

"I respect all (ratings) agencies but my confidence, as prime minister, is on the side of the Bank of Spain," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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