Bank shares lose half their value in market 'carnage'


Irish banks lost half their value or more on the stock market today shareholders raced to offload their holdings amid fears that their value will be severely reduced or fall to zero.

Dealers described market activity as financial "carnage", as the share prices fell to their lowest ever levels.

Following the British government's announcement that its preference shares in Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) will be converted into ordinary shares - diluting the value of the shares - the bank began its steep descent, eventually closing down 67 per cent.

Fears the same step may have to be applied to AIB and Bank of Ireland in order to recapitalise them prompted an exodus from the stocks from mid-morning on, with investors taking the view that they should get out now while they can.

By the close, AIB had plummeted 58 per cent in value, ending the day at a price of 60 cent compared to Friday's close of €1.45. Bank of Ireland fell almost 55 per cent to close at 34 cent, down from 75 cent on Friday.

One Dublin-based equity dealer said it appeared almost inevitable that the two banks would have to be nationalised - a fear that could prompt ongoing turmoil on the equity markets this week. Much now depends on the reaction of US investors: Wall Street was closed today for Martin Luther King day.

Irish Life & Permanent, which had held up relatively well in mid-morning and early afternoon, eventually capitulated to the panic-stricken mood, with its share price closing down 50 per cent at €1.10.

The spillover from the financial sector led to heavy falls on highly leveraged stocks, including Independent News & Media, which fell 25 per cent to 26 cent. Liquid stocks such as DCC, Fyffes and Grafton were also hit.

Dublin brokers earlier said a variety of factors were weighing on Irish banking shares including news of huge losses among some British banking stocks today and ongoing fears over the Irish economy.

"Investors are a bit worried after Anglo," NCB analyst Ciaran Callaghan said.

Stuart Draper, stockbroking director at Dolmen Securities, said the decision by the UK government to swap £5 billion of preference shares in RBS for new ordinary shares had implications for investor sentiment in relation to Irish banks.

This decision means that the UK government's stake in RBS will increase from 58 per cent to nearly 70 per cent, massively diluting existing shareholders.

The basis of the recapitalisation of AIB and Bank of Ireland will see the Government invest €2 billion each in AIB and Bank of Ireland (BoI) in return for a 25 per cent say in "key issues" at the banks on the basis of preference shares.

AIB and Bank of Ireland are seeking to raise a further €1 billion each from private investors. Irish Life and Permanent is also seeking to raise up to €500 million.

However, the State could become a significant holder of ordinary shares in AIB and Bank of Ireland because the Government has agreed to under-write the issuing of new shares in both.

Analysts said today’s share price falls could make it more difficult for these banks to raise private capital in the coming weeks under the Government’s recapitalisation plan.

Mr Draper said many investors were concerned that the Government's preference shares may be converted into ordinary shares and this was contributing to the declines in the share prices of Irish financial stocks.

The nationalisation of Anglo had “spooked” investors and that the overall Irish approach to the banking crisis was perceived internationally as a “panic measure,” Mr Draper added.

Another Dublin-based analyst said the fact that the US market is closed for Martin Luther King Day means there are no large institutional investors in the market for Irish bank shares.

“There is a huge amount of negative sentiment and a lot of nervousness. There are also fears that there could be nationalisations down the road. It is our sense that this is not going to happen but the level of fear remains,” the analyst said.

Bank of Ireland said today it would look at internal and external candidates for a new CEO after Brian Goggin announced he would retire this summer.

Anglo Irish Bank said five members of its board resigned, clearing the way for the government to appoint a new team under new chairman Donal O'Connor, who will stay on.

Separately, the Government has cancelled plans to place heavy restrictions on Anglo Irish Bank accounts.

Under the original draft, anyone who owed the commercial lender €20 million or more would have been prevented from withdrawing money if the total in their accounts dropped below the amount owed.

A Department of Finance spokesman said draft legislation to be introduced to the Oireachtas on Tuesday would not include these clauses, which he said had been a precautionary measure.

"The Attorney General has since advised that it is unnecessary," he said.

Sentiment was not improved by comments by EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia who said today Ireland’s economy was likely to contract by 5 per cent this year, the second weakest performance in the EU, behind only Latvia.

As a result, any recovery in Ireland will lag behind the rest of Europe. While Mr Almunia believes the EU economy may stop contracting by March and show signs of recovery coming in October, Ireland’s economy will have to wait until 2010 for signs of recovery.

Elsewhere, European financial stocks fell 9 percent after news of a record loss at Britain's Royal Bank of Scotland, with a cut in Spain's credit rating adding to the market's woes.

In Britain, Royal Bank of Scotland shares fell to a 23-year low after unveiling a loss of up to £28 billion last year, the biggest loss in British corporate history.

The statement came as the British government sought to counter a looming recession by unveiling a new rescue package for banks that will see its stake in RBS rise to nearly 70 per cent from 58 per cent.

Shares in RBS were down 23 per cent at 26.7 pence having earlier fallen to 24.3 pence and to their lowest level since 1986.

The latest bailout failed to support shares in Lloyds Banking Group, however, as they made their debut on the London Stock Exchange. Traders said the package had been overshadowed by fears that the massive losses at RBS would set a precedent for the rest of the sector.

Additional reporting agencies