By Tsvetelia Tsolova and Kole Casule
A Greek-owned bank in Bulgaria said on Monday it saw a slight increase in depositors moving money to other banks, a first rumbling of the debt crisis in Athens making itself felt in Greece’s ex-Communist neighbours.
Millions of people in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Serbia and Romania have deposits in banks owned by Greek lenders, putting this corner of south-eastern Europe in the frontline if the Greek crisis spreads.
Central banks in Macedonia and Serbia introduced extra restrictions on the movement of capital between local subsidiaries and their Greek parents, saying they were taking precautions against any spillover from Athens.
But on Monday Greek-owned banks in the region were open, paying out cash and issuing loans – in contrast to Greece itself, where branches are shut and people can withdraw a maximum of 60 euros a day from ATMs.
The Greek-owned bank that an increase in customers ordering transfers to other banks, United Bulgarian Bank, said there was no cause for worry. The bank is a subsidiary of National Bank of Greece
“Business as usual,” Chief Executive Stilian Vatev told Reuters. “The situation is calmer than expected following the news from Greece.”
Regional central banks said they had, in effect, quarantined the subsidiaries of Greek banks, cordoning off their capital from their parents so they would not be rocked by the turbulence in Greece. For a factbox, click on
Still, Greek’s ex-Communist neighbours were watching the drama in Athens anxiously. Greek banks own 20 percent of the banking sector in some countries, so the exposure is real, and the region’s economies have historically been fragile. It would not take a lot to push them into crisis too.
Petar Bakhchevanov, a resident of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, got some cash from an ATM on Monday, not because he needed the money but to test if his Greek-owned bank was still paying out.
“After watching the news on TV, I just wanted to check if everything is okay and I can withdraw money from my account,” said Bakhchevanov, outside a branch of Piraeus Bank Bulgaria, a subsidiary of Greece’s Piraeus bank.
Bakchevanov took out 100 Bulgarian levs, or around $50, from the ATM. Inside the branch, he said, bank staff had reassured him he did not need to worry about his deposit.
In neighbouring Macedonia, the central bank governor said restrictions on bank transactions with Athens, announced late on Sunday, had shut off any outflow of capital.
“We have not noticed today any serious withdrawal of deposits by citizens or companies,” the governor, Dimitar Bogov, told a news conference.
TRANSACTIONS WITH ATHENS
In Serbia, a dealer who works for the Serbian subsidiary of a Greek bank said interbank operations with Greece had stopped because banks there were shut, but he said otherwise operations were carrying on as normal.
A trader at a Greek-owned bank in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, also said interbank operations with Greece were limited – but they had been for months.
“We don’t like it, but we have survived it until now,” the trader said. “It’s not something we cannot handle.”
The potential for Greek contagion left investors who hold the region’s assets feeling jittery. The Romanian leu lost 0.8 per cent to the euro and the Serbian dinar fell 0.4 percent.
Balkan eurobonds also sold off. Bulgaria’s 2024 1.5 billion- euro issue fell almost 2 cents in price and Romania’s 2024 1.2 billion-euro issue lost 0.8 cent. Serbia’s 2020 dollar bond fell half a cent.
But for the ordinary clients of Greek-owned banks, there was no sign anything was different from usual.
“For us, this Monday is a normal working day,” Piraeus Bank Bulgaria said in a statement sent to Reuters.
In Albania, there were no queues in front of branches of the four Greek-owned banks, and an official said there were no plans to further restrict banks moving capital around, as Macedonia had. “Why should we?” the official said.
In the centre of Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, a branch of Stopanska bank – owned by National Bank of Greece – was functioning as normal, according to a female teller.
A 39-year-old customer who gave his name as Dimitar had just been in to sign a contract on a loan so he could renovate his apartment. “I don’t think what’s happening in Greece is coming here,” he said.