ANALYSIS: Nordic banks safe haven even as household debt soars

COOL CUSTOMERS::Norway’s largest bank has set up a unit for the growing number of inquiries from overseas, including regular retail and corporate banking customers

AFP, STOCKHOLM

Mon, Oct 15, 2012 - Page 15

Swedish and Norwegian banks say they have seen an influx of foreign investors looking for a safe haven from the turmoil of the troubled eurozone.

However, while financial institutions in the Scandinavian countries may be as safe as houses, frothy real estate markets have pushed consumer debt to record levels.

In Stockholm’s trendy Vasastan district, a 10m2 home once used to house the building’s caretaker last month sold for 1.35 million kronor (US$204,000).

For investors, the case for placing money in Sweden and Norway is largely based on the fact that their currencies are seen as less risky than the beleaguered euro. Neither country is a member of the eurozone, and Norway is not even a member of the EU.

UNSCATHED

Moreover, their export-driven economies have been doing well, their financial systems have been largely unscathed by the international crisis, and Norway’s oil industry has been cheered by rising prices and a string of oil and gas finds over the past year.

At Norway’s largest bank DNB, a special unit has been set up to deal with the growing number of inquiries from overseas.

“Over the past year we’ve seen growing interest from foreign clients not just in private banking, but also from regular retail and corporate banking customers,” said Ingrid Tjoenneland, DNB’s head of private banking, which targets high net worth individuals.

The trend began two years ago with a growing number of German investors depositing money in Norwegian banks, but has spread to investors from all over the eurozone, she added.

A spokesman for Scandinavia’s largest bank Nordea said that although the phenomenon is more pronounced in Norway, some central banks have raised their Swedish krona-denominated holdings in the wake of the euro crisis.

INFLOWS

“We’re seeing large inflows into [Norwegian and Swedish] fixed income funds,” said Claes Maahlen, head of trading strategy at investment bank Handelsbanken Capital Markets.

Anatoli Annenkov, an economist at Societe Generale in London, said that the low trading volumes of Scandinavian currencies meant that they could be difficult to sell if there is another global shock to the financial system, but added that he remains “relatively positive” on Norway’s krone and Sweden’s krona.

While the financial crisis has seen banks in other countries tightening credit and consumers subsequently lowering their debt levels, the strong economies of Norway and Sweden have done little to stop a surge in property prices.

The Norwegian property market has risen by almost 25 percent in the past five years, making it the strongest performer in the industrialized world.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, consumer debt has spiked. Swedish households’ average debt as a share of their disposable income rose to almost 170 percent last year. The Norwegian ratio crossed the 200 percent mark earlier this year.

PROPERTY PRICES

Sky-high property prices are increasingly putting the squeeze on middle class families in the major cities.

Annika Borg, a 29-year old business intelligence consultant, said that although she and her partner both work full time, they still cannot afford a house with a garden in the Swedish capital.

Instead the couple recently settled for a two-bedroom apartment in a suburb ahead of having their first child, with the hope of one day getting a garden for their family as they move up the property ladder.

“That’s our hope, but where that house would be located is another question,” Borg said.

The high indebtedness of home owners makes them more vulnerable to any future rise in the interest rate.

“While household debt is at an all time high, interest costs are nearly at an all time low,” said Shakeb Syed, chief economist at Norwegian stock broker Sparebank1 Markets.

On Wednesday, credit rating institue Moody’s warned that Norwegian banks “are sensitive” to the housing market.

On the other side of the border, minutes from the latest meeting of the Swedish central bank show that four of its six policymakers were concerned with the level of household debt.

REAL ESTATE CRASH

However, few believe the countries will see the type of real estate crash that in recent years has hit countries like Ireland, Spain and the US. Healthy government finances and low unemployment rates, especially in Norway, are underpinning the market.

Both countries also lack a crucial ingredient of most housing bubbles: An increase in the number of homes being built. For more than a decade, the supply of new housing in Norway and Sweden has trailed that of other European countries.

Critics point to onerous planning laws, high construction costs and a failure to invest in infrastructure in urban growth areas.

“Prices have risen the most in city centers. I think it would have been a good idea to expand the transportation network around the big cities,” Syed said.