Is Dexia Bank The Bear Stearns Of The Current Credit Crisis?

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 |  Includes: DXBGF
by: Daryl Montgomery

Over the weekend French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel said they had come to an agreement on recapitalizing EU banks. No details of their mystery plan were released. Plenty of details were forthcoming however on how Dexia (OTC:DXBGF) was going to be bailed out and they indicate that it's time for EU leaders to stop talking and to start acting.

Before its recent failure, Dexia bank was described as one of the strongest banks in Europe. It had no trouble passing the recent EU stress tests for banks (so much for the accuracy of those tests, which I have maintained for some time are nothing but a meaningless public relations gambit). Its Greek debt exposure was cited by the mainstream media as a primary reason for Dexia's demise. Dexia though had only 5.4 billion euros of Greek debt on its books out of an asset base of 518 billion euros according to Bloomberg. So, Greek debt was a little over 1% of Dexia's loans. Apparently this was enough for wholesale funding for the bank to dry up. Like most banks, consumer deposits were not enough to maintain Dexia's operations, it needed to continually borrow in the interbank market.

Dexia was a Franco-Belgium bank created 15 years ago by a merger of banks from the two countries. It also operates in Luxembourg and owns a 75% stake in Denzibank AS in Turkey, which it purchased in 2006. The Belgium government agreed to buy Dexia for 4 billion euros. The French and Luxembourg units will be sold. Together, the three European governments will guarantee 90 billion euros of interbank and bond funding for 10 years. Belgium's share will be about 15% of its GDP. Guaranteeing bank debt has its risks and this is why Ireland required an EU bailout. Could Belgium be next?

If Dexia can fail, what EU bank is safe? Moreover, the failure happened without a default by Greece, so it is clear many more bank failures are possible regardless of the outcome of the Greek debt crisis.
It can also be assumed that default will make the situation much worse. There are reports from German news agency DPA that Eurozone finance ministers are working on a plan involving a 60% reduction in Greek debt (previous reports indicated a 50% reduction).

The recent Dexia failure, just like Bear Stearns failure in March 2008, happened because confidence from lenders in the interbank market disappeared. This can happen overnight. The monetary authorities patched things together temporarily after Bear Stearns demise, but the overall situation continued to deteriorate until Lehman Brothers failed six months later. A Greek default is likely to be the Lehman moment for the current credit crisis and Dexia's sudden collapse is similar to Bear Stearns. More bank failures in the EU will be a warning that the current crisis is escalating out of control.

Disclosure: None.