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Government intervention may not diminish Swedish banks’ appeal

With Sweden’s political leaders threatening part-nationalisation of the banking system if their disastrous Baltic loans take another tumble, the country’s banks are clearly not out of the woods yet.

However, part-nationalisation of big names such as Swedbank or SEB might not necessarily lead to them looking for greater rewards elsewhere.

Swedish finance minister Anders Borg warned earlier this month that the state would be prepared to step in and buy stakes in distressed banks if they fell deeper into trouble because of their Baltic loans – but in return would impose draconian, though as yet undisclosed, terms.

“We want to be very clear so that people know what could happen,” he told journalists. “We’re going to be clear that insolvent banks that don’t meet legal requirements will see an injection of funds, primarily through government ownership,” he added.

Swedish banks, primarily Swedbank and SEB, have between them lent an estimated SKr593bn to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, much of which is now turning sour.

Although Sweden’s Financial Supervisory Authority has stressed the banks, for the moment at any rate, have to capacity to ride out the Baltic storm, Swedbank chief executive Michael Wolf has admitted it is girding itself for a potential devaluation of the Latvian Lats, something that could in turn lead to a wave of defaults, according to Morgan Stanley economist Oliver Weeks.

Henrik Schmidt, analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, says part-nationalisation is by no means certain and, even if it happens, may not necessarily make the big banks less attractive places to work.

“Nordea is already 20% owned by the government and DNB in Norway is 34% owned by its government, and has been for some years, so I do not think part-nationalisation, if it were to happen, will make a huge difference to how the banks are perceived,” he points out.

“There may be less of a bonus structure for senior management but that in many instances is already the case where banks, such as Swedbank and SEB, have joined the government’s state-backed guarantee programme,” he adds.

The guarantee programme has placed restrictions on the remuneration of senior management, specifically to the top five executives receiving the highest total remuneration.

“The increasing cost of loan losses and negative results in the Baltics will probably mean we will see some cuts in jobs,” says one analyst.

There might well be some downsizing in the Baltics, though within Sweden itself the vast majority of big cuts have already been made, argues Schmidt.

“Increasing loan losses and speculation around the devaluation of some currencies will create a lot of problems for some time,” agrees Erik Alsaker, credit research analyst at Nordea.

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