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Banking

Portugal's bank bailout - no need to panic

Rescuing Portugal's Banco Espirito Santo is costly, but it's a baptism of fire for Europe's reformed financial system, says DW's Henrik Böhme. Lessons have been learned from the eurozone crisis six years ago.

It reappeared all of a sudden - the thought of September 15, 2009. That was the day Lehman Brothers collapsed and dragged down with it large parts of the global financial system.

Sure, the mellifluous Banco Espirito Santo of Portugal cannot be compared to Lehman. And the circumstances that got it into trouble can't be put in the same basket either. But BES's ability to hide 5 billion euros [$6.7 billion] in its books without anyone noticing is somewhat alarming.

Either the bank had excellent number jugglers, or the responsible banking supervisors seriously needed to get their vision checked. Or executives were hoping for some help from above, with the bank having such a spiritual name.

But a shortfall of 5 million euros is a very worldly matter. What followed this discovery was a weekend full of hectic negotiations (reminiscent of the Lehman Brothers case) and the news of a multi-billion-euro rescue deal (unlike Lehman), breaking just before markets in Asia opened.

Learning from past mistakes

But there's another fundamental difference that shows we've come a long way towards regulating financial markets. Footing the bailout bill are first and foremost the owners of the bank, the shareholders and bond creditors. This time the ordinary banking clients - that is, account holders - are being protected from the fallout.

Lisbon bails out BES

Of course, the billions Lisbon will have to pay will hurt Portugal, a country that has just exited its international bailout program after three harsh, austerity-driven years. Fortunately, there's something left from the 78-billion-euro rescue fund that the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank granted the southern European nation at the time.

It's got to be said that the mechanisms developed by the EU for winding down failing banks obviously work quite well. Banco Espirito Santo was a kind of acid test. The need to rescue this lender had been evident for a while, not least because the bank's equity ratio had dipped to just 5 percent. That was below the 7-percent ratio demanded by supervisors. And it set the alarm bells ringing in financial and government circles.

No one has to be afraid of a renewed outbreak of the euro crisis. But the case of Portugal's biggest private lender goes to show that not all trouble spots that emerged with the 2009 meltdown have been dealt with.

And Espirito Santo shows it was worthwhile to press for truly viable European-wide solutions, including well-functioning banking supervision and instruments to wind down failing banks.

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