France brushed off concerns about its biggest banks Wednesday, insisting that it had no plans to nationalize any of them despite a credit rating downgrade linked to their exposure to the limping Greek economy.
Moody’s Investors Service downgraded two of France’s biggest banks Wednesday, Société Générale and Crédit Agricole, citing the fragile state of bank financing markets and, in the case of Crédit Agricole, exposure to the Greek economy. It kept a third, BNP Paribas, under review.
The French government’s latest attempt at reassurance about the health of their banks came as the leaders of France and Germany prepared to speak with their Greek counterpart amid worries that Athens may default on its heavy debt load.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner also sought to soothe nerves over a possible Greek default, saying in a CNBC interview that European leaders have the capacity “to hold this thing together.”
European stocks and the euro also got a lift after the head of the European Commission said he would present options soon for the introduction of euro area bonds — the latest effort by European leaders to show they are trying to strengthen the foundations of their monetary union.
The credit ratings cuts had been widely anticipated by investors but nevertheless sparked knee-jerk drops in the euro and Asian stock markets, both of which had already been on the back foot earlier in the Asian trading day.
But the downgrades were less severe than many analysts had anticipated, and by midday in Europe, the Euro Stoxx 50 index of euro zone blue chips was up around 2 percent and the FTSE 100 in London was up around 1.5 percent.
In Japan, the Nikkei 225 index closed down 1.1 percent, but the Hang Seng in Hong Kong closed up 0.1 percent.
The euro, which had been hovering at around the mid-$1.36 level before news of the downgrades, slipped half a cent initially but then rallied to above $1.37.
The Bank of France governor, Christian Noyer, called the ratings cuts “good news” because they were less than expected. In a radio interview, he also said it would make “no sense” to nationalize any French bank, calling such talk “surreal.”
Mr. Geithner said in the CNBC interview that there was “no chance that the major countries of Europe will let their institutions be at risk in the eyes of the market.”
Still, underscoring concerns about the impact of Europe’s debt crisis and banking problems on the United States, Mr. Geithner plans to take the unusual step of attending a meeting of finance ministers from all 27 European Union nations in Poland on Friday.
In a stark warning, the Polish finance minister, Jacek Rostowski, who will host that meeting, said at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday that the European Union itself “might not survive” a collapse of the euro zone.
Société Générale, BNP Paribas and Crédit Agricole all hold Greek debt. Crédit Agricole and Société Générale are more exposed to the Greek banking system through subsidiaries they bought during the boom years. But Moody's said Société Générale's risks from its Greek holdings were relatively modest and manageable. The banks are considered integral actors in the French economy, lending billions of euros to businesses and individuals, and the government has said it will never let them any of them fail.
In its report, Moody’s expressed concern over the French banks’ reliance on wholesale funding markets given the “potentially persistent fragility in the bank financing markets.” Moody’s also highlighted “structural challenges to banks’ funding and liquidity profiles,” as nervousness about the exposure of European banks to a potential Greek default make it harder for banks to obtain funding.
A day after BNP Paribas was forced to deny a report that U.S. banks are pulling back on lending to it, Moody’s left its rating at Aa2, saying it had “an adequate cushion to support its Greek, Portuguese and Irish exposure.” But it said the bank would remain on review for a possible downgrade.
“I can only imagine that the bank is fighting very hard with the agency to avoid a downgrade,” Gary Jenkins, a the head of fixed income analysis at Evolution Securities, said in a note. Moody’s already rates the bank at the same level as Standard and Poor’s, he noted, “so any cut would result in a new low rating.”
BNP Paribas said on its website that it planned to cut its risk-weighted assets by about €70 billion, or $95.7 billion, and improve its Tier 1 capital ratio — a common measure of banks’ strength — to 9 percent by the start of 2013.
Analysts say one possible solution to Europe’s crisis is the creation of euro bonds, a bond that would be jointly backed by countries in the euro union. Such an instrument would make it harder for investors to attack the individual bonds of countries with tattered finances, like Greece or Italy.
Germany, whose bonds are considered rock-solid now, has been opposed to such a move because it would likely would face higher borrowing costs itself. Countries also would have to agree to relinquish a degree of sovereignty, and the whole process would face enormous political hurdles if changes to the treaty that established the euro are required.
In a speech to the European Parliament on Wednesday, the European Commission president José Manuel Barroso suggested, however, that he would suggest ways under which such bonds could be issued without changing the treaty, although other options would mean treaty change.
“But we must be honest,” he added. “This will not bring an immediate solution for all the problems we face.”
The biggest immediate problem is Greece, which has struggled to meet the terms of an agreement struck in July for new emergency funding, as economic growth slows after nearly two years of harsh austerity.
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel were scheduled to hold a video conference call Wednesday evening with the embattled Greek prime minister, George Papandreou. The announcement could portend yet another restructuring of Greek debt to stave off a default.
In Beijing, the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao expressed his support for Europe at a World Economic Forum event Wednesday.
“What we have to take note of now is to prevent the sovereign debt crises from spreading and expanding further,” he said, according to Reuters. “We’ve said countless times that China is willing to give a helping hand and we’ll continue to invest there.”