The US bailout plan may or may not be resurrected, but the focus of the credit crisis is now on Europe where there’s growing concern at the fragmented nature of bank regulation across the eurozone, plus the UK. All up a dozen banks have failed or been bailed out since the crunch erupted in August of 2007.

From IKB, the first in Germany, to Gexia, the latest in Belgium early this morning, it’s a multi-billion toll of loans and fresh capital injections on a size seen in the US. Coupled with the banking debacle known as UBS and its $US50 billion in losses, plus smaller but still hurtful losses at Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and through the French banking system, the continent financial sector has been weakened to the point where there are fears about stability.

The problem has now gone from one being solely in Britain where the ‘Anglo-Saxon disease took root” as many Europeans sneeringly claimed, to one where the same infection is sweeping across the eurozone. Britain lost Northern Rock mortgage bank early on, but Germany saw three small and medium sized banks need rescuing in multi-billion euro deals.

Then Britain forced the HBOS into the arms of Lloyds TSB, and at the weekend nationalised the mortgage loans ($A110 billion worth) of Bradford and Bingley, meaning that all the former building societies that demutualised from 1989 onwards had failed or been taken over to save them.

Now the continent has been wracked by huge and escalating bailouts of some household names: the Fortis financial group, 11 billion euros, Dexia, an estimated 7 billion euros, Hypo Real Estate in Germany, an incredible 35 billion euros and the Glitnir Bank in Iceland; the cost $A1 billion for a 75% stake.

All were involved one way or another in short term borrowing to fund investments in US subprime mortgages, associated credit derivatives called CDOs, other forms of real estate (commercial property), share market trading and asset buying (longer term plays backed by short term funds).

Germany’s Hypo Real Estate, a commercial property lender, had a huge $US560 billion in debts and other liabilities when rescued. Seeing Lehman Brothers had debts of $US613 billion when it collapsed, questions should be asked as to where German banking and financial regulators were.

Hypo was rescued with a €35bn lifeline from a consortium of local banks and its share price fell 74%, triggering a massive loss of confidence in Germany, and Ireland where it had banking operations.

Commerzbank shares fell fell 23% and those of another bank, Aareal shed 43%, while in Dublin the market slumped with Allied Irish Banks dropping even more, by 44% on fears that wholesale funding might be cut off to the financial system.

Europe has been as badly damaged as the US by the credit crunch and slump as the weak and wholesale market dependant financial groups are picked off one by one by the great wave of deleveraging and risk aversion.

But the continent depends upon individual regulators: there is no overarching system for controlling financial groups in the European central bank or the European Union, which doesn’t have a treasurer or treasurer’s office like we do or the US, or Britain.

The bailout of Fortis is a major concern with commentators analysts still uncertain as to why a group with $US1 trillion in assets and with an apparent solid balance sheet and high levels of liquidity, needed bailing out. The Financial Times quite rightly described it as a “mystery”.

Dexia’s problems surprised, as rumours spread yesterday it could be looking to raise money its shares fell 10%, 20% and then 30%. That rescue of Hypo should trigger warnings about all property related companies in Europe and the UK.

Iceland is one to keep an eye on. the country’s economy is highly leveraged and dependant on short term capital flows; its banks likewise, but have been aggressive investors in the UK in particular, as have investment companies the financed.

Just as Hypo Real estate’s problems in Germany seem to have triggered concerns in Ireland, the problems in Iceland could have a very nasty knock on effect to the UK at a time when retailing is buckling under the impact of the gathering recession and credit crunch.

And analysts said that the ECB and its interest rate in July to 4.25% at the behest of inflation hardliners, especially from Germany, meant the central bank had failed to heed the gathering storm and played a major role in triggering the problems in the eurozone and beyond.

But there is no pan-European group that could take control of any crisis and try and dampen it, apart from the US federal reserve which continued to flood the world economy with hundreds of billions of dollars in cash.

And what are Europe’s banks doing? keeping 28 billion euros on deposit with the ECB because they are terrified (like our banks are) to lend a cent to anyone.

In the US the situation grows worse in the wider economy: General Motors’ biggest Chevrolet dealer collapsed at the weekend, throwing over 3,000 people out of work. The US car companies, domestic and foreign, are expected to reveal sharply cuts in sales when September’s sales figures are released on Thursday, our time. US analysts are looking for more production cuts from companies as annual sales head towards a very low 12-13 million units a year, down 30% and more in some categories.

The three domestic car groups got $US25 billion in loans for new technology cars and other changes in the final spending bill of the same Congress that said no to the $US700 billion bailout. That money will bolster their reserves, and they could very well need it in coming months.

General Motors 49% finance arm, GMAC is a prime candidate to collapse if the bailout bill can’t be brought back to life. GMAC is 51% owned by the company that owns Chrysler, the private equity group, Cerberus. That’s a house of cards just waiting in current circumstances.

And Circuit City, once one of America’s major electronics and consumer entertainment retailers (Like Harvey Norman here) says it has abandoned efforts to find a potential buyer, after consumer numbers fell and losses escalated in the second quarter.

The retailer said it had seen a double digit decline in traffic at its stores, with total sales down 9.6% (13% lower on a same store basis) at $US 2.4 billion and a loss of almost $US236 million, including the cost of asset write-downs in closed stores.

Peter Fray

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