VIENNA, Sept 12 Austrian officials reacted
angrily on Monday to proposals by Hungary to let households
repay foreign currency loans in one go at low fixed exchange
rates and said the European Commission was trying to convince
Budapest to abandon the plan.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban deemed the plan to
allow Hungarians to repay Swiss franc and euro loans at a
discount to market levels "feasible", and warned against forcing
banks to issue new forint loans or mandatory debt conversion.
But officials said the steps could cost Austrian lenders
Austrian banks including UniCredit Bank Austria ,
Erste Group Bank and Raiffeisen Bank International
are among the leading lenders in the European Union's
emerging eastern wing, and they depend on the region as a main
source of growth.
They have roughly 6 billion euros ($8.23 billion) worth of
foreign-currency loans outstanding in Hungary, officials said.
The banks declined to comment on the issue, on which officials
said they were seeking more details.
But an Austrian official who asked not to be named said the
European Commission was intervening.
"Already over the weekend there have been several attempts
to get an idea what (Orban) is planning exactly and to convince
him to back down because it could have a major impact on banks
and it is not in line with the legislation in the European
Union," the official said.
"It is a complete failure to comply with the rules within
The Austrian central bank and market regulator FMA have long
warned that foreign-currency credit -- often loans taken out
years ago by retail borrowers using Swiss franc loans as a way
to cut interest costs -- posed risks to the system.
The franc's surge as a safe-haven asset, a rise checked
somewhat by aggressive action this month from the Swiss National
Bank , means those risks are now coming through.
"We have been saying that this is a very serious risk to our
banks, actually more than the liquidity and sovereign risk that
most of the banking sector is groaning under, but ... not
realising how soon it would materialise," one supervisor said.
Bank shares were among the top decliners in Vienna, with
Erste stock down 5 percent and Raiffeisen off 4.2 percent by
1515 GMT, lagging a 3.8 percent decline in the blue-chip index.
One official cited rough estimates that the plan could
deliver a combined 2.5 billion euro hit to profits at all banks
operating in Hungary.
Hundreds of thousands of Hungarian households have Swiss
franc loans equivalent to some 18 percent of the country's GDP.
Under the proposals put forward by Orban's Fidesz party, those
that could afford it would be able to make a one-off repayment
of their loans at an exchange rate of 180 forints per Swiss
franc or 250 forints per euro.
Calling the plan unacceptable, Austrian Foreign Minister
Michael Spindelegger said Vienna could take the case to the
European Court of Justice if Budapest did not change tack.
The Austria Press Agency (APA) quoted him as saying in
Brussels that Hungary's proposal "violates what we have built up
in the EU. Private contracts have to be respected."
APA said Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter had also
written a letter of protest to Budapest.
"We decisively reject the planned measures because they
represent a break from legal assurances as never before seen in
an EU member country," it quoted the letter as saying.
Bank Swiss franc loans in Hungary (bln eur)
Bank Austria 0.8
Erste Group 3
Raiffeisen Bank Int'l 1.6
($1 = 0.729 Euros)
(Reporting by Michael Shields and Angelika Gruber; Editing by