PARIS/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Worried customers withdrew funds and overloaded the telephone helpline of struggling bank Dexia (DEXI.BR) on Wednesday as governments raced to put a rescue plan in place and stop its troubles from deepening the euro zone debt crisis.
One French politician also expressed concern that the problems facing Franco-Belgian Dexia, a key player in municipal funding, might contaminate other banks and hit already tight financing for local authorities.
Belgium and France hope to finalize by Thursday a rescue plan for the bank, now in need of a second bailout in three years because of its exposure to Greek debt and trouble accessing wholesale funds.
“We have had some customers taking money out, but it has been limited,” a Dexia spokeswoman said. “We have faced many questions and we have been explaining the situation a lot.”
Dexia’s telephone helpline began with a warning that its system was ‘overloaded’. Otherwise, there was no obvious sign of panic or queues at Dexia’s branches in Brussels.
“It doesn’t worry me, I know it will be okay,” said Mora Ba, a 39-year-old plumber, coming out of a branch in Brussels.
Claude Bartolone, a lawmaker for the Seine Saint-Denis department north of Paris, said details were urgently needed.
“It would be unacceptable to contaminate the Banque Postale and especially the Caisse des Depots, given the trust that exists between it and local governments,” he said.
He added the rescue of Dexia had come at a very difficult time for the local authority funding, with tougher capital rules and market volatility tightening the screws for banks.
Maurice Vincent, the mayor of St Etienne, said Dexia’s market share for local finance in France had dropped to 10 percent from 20 percent in recent months, although they still held around half of all loans to municipalities.
In Belgium, the 589 cities, towns and districts which jointly hold a 14.1 percent stake could face an end to dividends and a capital loss that could bring down their holding cooperative.
“We are already in a tough situation,” said Michel De Herde, finance chief at Schaerbeek communie in Brussels. “If things go wrong it would also not be good for the public finances of Belgium as a whole,” he said.
Dexia’s shares hit an all-time low on Tuesday but recovered some ground on Wednesday as the Franco-Belgian rescue appeared to take shape and as signs that euro zone finance ministers are exploring ways to recapitalize banks boosted markets.
“I think that tomorrow a solution should be found,” France’s finance minister, Francois Baroin, told RTL radio.
Belgian newspaper De Tijd reported customers had gone into Belgian branches to withdraw 300 million euros ($398 million) from Dexia accounts. This excluded online transactions. Dexia in Belgium holds some 80 billion euros of deposits.
Belgium’s prime minister and finance minister have said Dexia savings were safe, with a government guarantee of 100,000 euros per account holder.
“Dexia clients saved” was the headline on top-selling Flemish newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws.
Three years after Fortis was broken apart by Belgium, the Netherlands and France’s BNP Paribas (BNPP.PA), Belgians are aware that a bank can go under, destroying shareholder value, but without touching customer deposits.
Under the rescue, the lender to thousands of French and Belgian towns will see its French municipal funding arm broken off and combined with French state bank Caisse des Depots and Banque Postale, the banking arm of France’s post office.
Belgium’s caretaker prime minister, Yves Leterme, said nationalization of the banking activities, including a large retail operation, was being considered.
Leterme also said guarantees Belgium planned to provide to Dexia did not represent a risk for the country and, while nationalization would hit public sector debt, the increase would be “quite limited.”
However, Belgian government bonds underperformed their German counterparts partly due to concerns that Belgium would face a hefty bill for Dexia. The 10-year yield spread rose to 2.22 percent, a three-week high.
Bank of France Governor Christian Noyer said speculation that support of Dexia would threaten France’s AAA credit rating were “exaggerated and inexact.”
French banks, he said, were generally in good health and the central banks of Belgium and France would ensure Dexia had enough liquidity. “We will loan Dexia as much as it needs,” Noyer told Europe 1 radio.
Dexia shares were 2 percent higher in late trading, albeit 29 percent down this week and 58 percent lower in the year to date. In an online poll in De Tijd asking if investors would end up with anything after the rescue, 75 percent of respondents answered ‘no’.
($1 = 0.753 euro)
Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek, Ben Deighton in Brussels; Leigh Thomas and Alexandria Sage in Paris; Editing by Andrew Callus and David Cowell