France and Belgium rescue crisis victim Dexia

Belgium, France and Luxembourg rescued Dexia on Monday, splitting up the bank after it became the first lender to succumb to Europe's debt crisis as the eurozone braced to recapitalise its banks.

France and Belgium rescue crisis victim Dexia
Redvers (File)

It was the second time in three years that Dexia needed to be rescued. This time, Belgium agreed after board and cabinet meetings to pay €4.0 billion ($5.36 billion) for Dexia’s domestic consumer-lending unit.

The dismantling of what was one of the largest lenders in France and Belgium three months after it passed European stress tests brought the banking crisis from the continent’s Mediterranean periphery right to its economic heart.

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme told a news conference that the takeover of Dexia Bank Belgium would “make secure” the retail bank and free it from “any risks resulting from the environment within parent body Dexia SA.

“Households can be sure and certain that their money is safe in their current accounts,” Leterme said. “The taxpayer will not be called on to contribute too much as the risk is under control and the cost of the operation is relative.”

Despite his reassurances, Dexia chief executive Pierre Mariani said clients made “significant withdrawals” from their accounts before the agreement was announced.

French Finance Minister Francois Baroin insisted that Dexia’s rescue was an isolated case and that banks in trouble were already identified in the European stress tests on the industry earlier.

“Dexia is a particular case, it’s not a general case,” Baroin told French TV channel iTele.

Amid mounting fears the debt crisis could sink the banking sector, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed on Sunday a response within weeks and insisted they were united on plans to shore up lenders.

Without announcing concrete details, Sarkozy promised, after talks with Merkel in Berlin, “lasting, global and quick responses before the end of the month” amid growing fears of a crippling credit crunch.

The eurozone drama has sent shivers across the Atlantic over concerns it could trigger a new global recession, with US President Barack Obama calling on Europeans to act fast to stem the crisis.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, in an interview with the Financial Times on Monday, warned that “time was short” for eurozone leaders to solve the debt crisis and urged them to adopt a “bazooka” approach.

Baroin provided some details, saying the exposure of banks to sovereign debt risks will be included with their results in any review and then central banks and regulators will establish the level of capital they need.

Banks needing recapitalisation will be able to do it through the markets or state agencies, he said, adding they may also get help from the eurozone rescue fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, once it is revamped.

In Paris, the Dexia board said the government takeover of Dexia Bank Belgium was in the “social interest” of the group.

Belgian Finance Minister Didier Reynders told the press conference that the €4.0-billion offer for Dexia Bank Belgium was “reasonable” and that the government does not want to keep control “indefinitely.”

In France, the government is aiming to create a new bank focused on local communities and owned by the Postal Bank and a public investment group, Caisse des Depots (CDC).

Investors from Qatar’s royal family meanwhile have agreed to buy the group’s Luxembourg unit, Dexia BIL.

The break-up became inevitable after worries over Europe’s sovereign debt caused a severe liquidity crisis and the rescue of a bank with a balance sheet of half a trillion euros — bigger than the entire Greek banking system — was seen as crucial to stop contagion.

Reynders said Belgium would guarantee the financing of the future “bad bank” that would remain to hold high-risk assets after the dismantling of the Dexia group, to the tune of 60.5 percent, or €54 billion.

The guarantee by the three states — France, Belgium and Luxembourg — where Dexia is present amounted to €90 billion, he said, against €150 billion when it was rescued in 2008 at the start of the global financial crisis.

The trio agreed to a similar split of the burden as in 2008 — 60.5 percent for Belgium, 36.5 percent for France and 3.0 percent for Luxembourg.

By providing guarantees, Baroin said the French government was not increasing its debt, therefore ensuring that it will keep its prized triple-A credit rating intact.

On Friday, ratings agency Moody’s said it had placed Belgium’s credit worthiness under review and that a downgrade was possible partly due to the Dexia bailout plans.

Dexia’s shares were suspended in Paris and Brussels on Monday, the third trading day in a row.

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How one man robbed dozens of French banks

A man who swindled French banks and businesses into giving him millions of euros was sentenced in absentia to seven years in jail on Wednesday. And his victims revealed in court exactly how the smooth talker operated.

How one man robbed dozens of French banks
French bank LCL (Le Credit Lyonnais) was among those targeted. Photo: AFP
Gilbert Chikli, 49, who fled to Israel in 2009 after being charged, was the mastermind of a scheme which saw him fleece some of France's top companies, and is the subject of an international arrest warrant.
During the trial, a former director of the Credit Lyonnais bank — now known as LCL — gave the court a run down of Chikli's scheme that convinced her to hand one million euros to a stranger in the bathroom of a Parisian bar.
First, a man introducing himself as the president of Credit Lyonnais called her and told her a secret services agent would shortly get hold of her and she should do everything he told her.
The agent explained he was working on a case involving money laundering and terrorism and needed her to transfer him money to dismantle a criminal network.
“He spoke about attacks, confidentiality, he isolates you. At the time I was under pressure at work and I wanted to do things properly,” she told the court.
Among the 33 banks and businesses targeted with the scheme between 2005 and 2006 were consulting group Accenture, which lost 5.9 million euros, the Post Office Bank, HSBC, aerospace firm Dassault, electricity and rail giant Alstom and chic Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette.
Some of the affected banks and companies that filed a civil suit were awarded €5.5 million ($6.1 million) in damages and interest.    
Two of the fourteen alleged accomplices involved in the trial were acquitted, while the others received fines or jail terms of up to four years in jail.
– 'Gift of the gab' –
Prosecutor Alice Cherif said Chikli used mental manipulation and harassment to wear down carefully chosen targets.
The technique “combines validation: 'I chose you for the mission' … and isolation: 'don't tell your colleagues, your family,” said the magistrate.   
The prosecutor said most of the 52 employees who were duped at the various companies had been fired.
Chikli managed to swindle a total of 60.5 million euros, 52.6 million euros of which was later recovered.
His story inspired a movie that is currently being filmed.
In 2010 he proudly told French television he was not a crook and that his scheme was a “game.”
“We contact businesses, banks, we pretend to be their president and with a rather extraordinary gift of the gab we manage to get large amounts of money.
“Either you have the gift or you don't. You could say I have the gift.”
The prosecutor said Chikli pioneered a hoax which had been adopted by copycat fraudsters and become a “scourge” in France, with 710 such cons worth 365 million euros having taken place since 2010, and nearly 1,000 others foiled.