Credit Agricole posts Q4 loss as Greece bites

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By SARAH DiLORENZO, Associated Press

PARIS (AP) — French bank Credit Agricole SA reported a euro3.07 billion ($4.06 billion) net loss in the fourth quarter on Thursday, as an intensifying European debt crisis drove down the value of its Greek bonds and shaved billions off the bank's bottom line.

Credit Agricole — hit by the Greek debt crisis largely through its ownership of Greek bank Emporiki — said fourth-quarter net profit plunged nearly tenfold from a loss of euro328 million in the last quarter of 2010. It also posted a net loss for 2011 of euro1.47 billion.

Investors dumped the bank's stock on the news, driving the share price down nearly 4 percent in early afternoon trading Thursday.

As part of an effort to drastically reduce Greece's unsustainable debt burden and avoid a chaotic default on the country's bonds in March, private bondholders are being asked to take substantial losses on their Greek bonds. They hope that if Greece's finances can be righted, they can draw a line under Europe's debt crisis, which has threatened to drag down bigger economies like Italy.

In anticipation of the losses on Greek debt, European banks have been writing down the value of those bonds. BNP Paribas and Societe Generale — French banks that also have substantial Greek holdings — saw their fourth-quarter profits plummet as they discounted their Greek bonds by 75 percent, roughly in line with what European leaders are asking of private institutions.

Credit Agricole has now taken similar measures. The bank said the overall net loss from Greece — including losses at Emporiki and the writing down of Greek debt — was euro2.38 billion for 2011.

Credit Agricole said it was also reducing the amount of money it lends to Emporiki.

However the bank's problems go beyond Greece. Credit Agriocle said a wide-range of factors had dragged down its bottom line, including "the slowdown in the European economies, the downgrades in European sovereign debt ratings, a particularly difficult situation in Greece and tensions in the financial markets."

Banks across Europe are also facing European Banking Authority requirements that they keep more funds in case of further market turmoil and are struggling to get the overnight loans they use to fund day-to-day operations on fears that one of them could collapse.

While the European Central Bank has stepped in to offer unlimited funding to banks, Credit Agricole said it was reducing its exposure to U.S. dollar denominated debt which is becoming increasingly expensive for some European banks as U.S. banks pull back on loans.

Despite the large losses, Jean-Paul Chifflet, chief executive of the bank, still called the results satisfactory, underscoring that the bank was now better positioned to operate in the tough economic times, noting in particular it had trimmed its investment banking division, where net income plunged 27 percent in 2011. Net income at its French retail banks, by contrast, was up more than 5 percent.

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