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Swedish Banks Get No Capital Respite as Recession Looms

April 16, 2012

Sweden’s banks are unlikely to get any respite on a government plan to impose stricter capital rules at home than in the rest of the world even as the nation teeters on the brink of a recession.

“The risk of not having high capital coverage of the banks is that the risk increases for a financial crisis,” Financial Markets Minister Peter Norman said in an interview in Stockholm. Should the economic outlook deteriorate, then “it’s primarily fiscal and monetary policy that should be prioritized, not to keep dabbling with the capital coverage rules,” he said.

Sweden in November told its four biggest banks to target stricter capital rules than those set by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision and to meet the deadline six years earlier than the group’s 2019 target. Since then, the government has more than halved its economic forecast for 2012 and some forecasters, including Danske Bank A/S, see a recession this year. The administration of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt last week said it plans no major fiscal boost to aid recovery.

Swedish output may contract as much as 0.5 percent this year after shrinking 1.1 percent in the fourth quarter, Danske Bank said April 4. Nordea Bank AB (NDA), the largest Nordic lender, in a March 27 forecast said Sweden’s economy will contract 0.3 percent this year amid an export slump. Unemployment (SWUERATE), which has risen as companies cut jobs to stay competitive, hovered close to 8 percent in February.

Risk to Taxpayers

Reinfeldt’s government today said output growth will slow to 0.4 percent this year, sending the budget into a deficit. His administration defended its plan to tighten capital rules arguing Sweden’s bank industry, now about four times the size of the economy, poses too big a risk to taxpayers without further curbs.

The krona slipped 0.1 percent against the euro to 8.8890 as of 10:25 a.m. in Stockholm. Versus the dollar, the krona lost 0.6 percent to 6.8312.

“We could end up in a situation where we end up with a significant slowdown of the economy,” Norman said.

A stable and well-functioning financial system “is of key importance to the economy,” the government said in its budget report today. “While a range of measures have been taken to promote greater stability, the size of the Swedish banking sector relative to gross domestic product is a risk factor.”

‘Difficult Question’

The timing of the tougher bank rules is “a difficult question, but what we’re seeing now is after all a growing economy both in Sweden and internationally,” Norman said.

Sweden’s largest banks, Nordea, Svenska Handelsbanken AB (SHBA), SEB AB (SEBA) and Swedbank AB (SWEDA), need to target 10 percent core Tier 1 buffers of their risk-weighted assets from January and 12 percent from 2015. That compares with the Basel Committee’s core capital target of at least 7 percent. The European Banking Authority has set a temporary 9 percent target for some lenders.

While parts of Sweden’s bank industry have lashed out at the government, arguing more rigorous standards than elsewhere will distort competition, investors welcome its resolve to commit to stricter rules even as the economic outlook deteriorates.

“The Swedish economy is in a relatively decent condition so there’s no sense in changing the planned capital rules,” Fridtjof Berents, an Oslo-based analyst at Arctic Securities ASA, said in a phone interview. “The banks in Sweden are in a situation where having higher equity levels gives investors in the funding market confidence.”

‘Excessive Burden’

Stockholm-based Nordea had a core Tier 1 capital buffer --a measure of financial strength -- of 11.2 percent of its risk- weighted assets at the end of last year. Nordea Chief Executive Officer Christian Clausen said last month Sweden may need to harmonize its capital standards down should the European Union reach a decision on requirements. The 12 percent ratio will be an “excessive burden on the economy,” Clausen said March 27.

While Norman said he “can’t exclude” that the government could reconsider the timing of stricter bank rules should the economy prove much weaker than its main forecast, criticism from the banks won’t provoke a watering down of the standards.

“There will always be tension between regulators and bankers,” he said. “Bankers want absolute minimum rules for everything and to be able to raise the bar to where they think it should be. We must always side with the taxpayers.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Johan Carlstrom in Stockholm at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonas Bergman in Stockholm at

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