Spain clears bank reforms to revive ailing economy

By Daniel Woolls

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 3 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Spain's Economy Minister Luis de Guindos pauses during a news conference at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid Friday Feb. 3, 2012 after a government cabinet meeting. Spain's new conservative government approved Friday a plan forcing banks to set aside an estimated euro 50 billion ($65 billion) in new provisions to cover toxic real estate assets, a bid to heal a sector that is critical to reviving the lame economy.

Paul White, Associated Press

MADRID — Spain's new conservative government on Friday imposed sweeping new rules it hopes will flush out bad property loans and foreclosed property from the financial system, restore confidence in banks and set the ailing economy back on track toward recovery.

The regulations approved by the Cabinet require banks to set aside an estimated €50 billion ($65 billion) more in provisions to cover toxic real estate assets by the end of the year.

Those unable to do so can present merger plans by the end of May and get government assistance from an existing bailout fund that will be strengthened with an addition €6 billion.

To avoid being forced to raise so much money for the real estate provisions, banks will face enormous pressure to sell assets like land and foreclosed or unsold homes at lower market prices.

The aim is to keep them from hoarding the loans and property on their balance sheets, a practice which has already sapped strength from the banking system and the country's finances overall for years.

"With this set of measures, the fundamental idea is to boost confidence in our economy, strengthen the banking sector and its credibility in the national and international realm," Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria told reporters after the Cabinet meeting.

Spain rode an unprecedented building boom from the 1990s until the financial crisis hit in 2008, but the real estate bubble that burst left it with an unemployment rate of 22.8 percent — the highest among the 17 nations using the euro — and increasingly tight credit for business and individuals.

Bailed-out Portugal is suffering from an even deeper credit crisis, and its leader appealed Friday for Portuguese banks to be given more leeway to meet capital requirements because the credit crunch is driving viable companies out of business

The country's bailout terms require Portugal's banks to improve their reserve cushion of high-quality capital to help them weather Europe's prolonged sovereign debt crisis. That debt-reduction process, called deleveraging, has compelled them to reduce the number of loans they grant.

If the deleveraging process is too intense, it can be counterproductive in the medium term. That's the fine-tuning we're looking for," Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho told weekly newspaper Sol in comments published Friday.

Spain's development ministry now estimates there are 687,000 unsold new homes on the national market, but other studies put the number as high as 1.6 million in the nation of 47 million. There is no government figure for used homes for sale, but estimates range into the millions.

The move to clean up the banking sector and force property sales "is a good plan but it should have been done before because credit has been frozen here for such a long time," said Carles Vergara, a Financial Management professor at Madrid's IESE business school.

While home prices have declined more than 20 percent over the last several years to levels not seen since 2005, Spanish banks still hold about €175 billion in real estate holdings that the Bank of Spain classifies as "problematic."

The government plan should spur banks to reduce prices by double digits and send down prices of homes not held by banks as well, said Fernando Encinar, head of research at the popular Idealisto.com real estate web site.

"Prices will go down more, and at a faster rate," he said.

The book value of property on Spanish banks' balance sheets is widely seen as inflated, and that has spooked foreign investors, making it hard for the banks to tap capital markets for money to lend.

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