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Rating Action:

MOODY'S REPORTS: NORWEGIAN BANKS' STABLE OUTLOOK REFLECTS STRONG FINANCIAL FUNDAMENTALS, BUT ALSO INTENSE COMPETITION

05 Aug 2004
MOODY'S REPORTS: NORWEGIAN BANKS' STABLE OUTLOOK REFLECTS STRONG FINANCIAL FUNDAMENTALS, BUT ALSO INTENSE COMPETITION

London, 05 August 2004 -- The stable rating outlook for the Norwegian banking system is based on the banks' strong domestic franchises, sound financial fundamentals and overall low risk profile, says Moody's Investors Service in a new Banking System Outlook on Norway. The outlook also incorporates intense competition and a decline in interest rates.

Although the Norwegian banks' asset quality indicators deteriorated in 2002-2003, their credit risk profile is sound, says Moody's. The deterioration was related to a few specific events, and ratios had already improved at year-end 2003 and in 2004. The rating agency also points out that although Norwegian banks post a higher proportion of problem loans compared with banks in the rest of the Nordic region, they compare well with other rated banks in Europe.

During 2003-2004, the majority of Moody's rating actions for Norwegian banks were positive. More recently, DnB NOR Bank's rating outlook was changed back to stable from negative, as the merger between the former Den norske Bank and Union Bank of Norway has gone smoothly. "Although the merger created Norway's largest financial institution by far, local and regional banks (including savings banks) remain strong players," says Anne Caris, a Moody's AVP/analyst and author of the new report. "While the latter are preparing for when DnB NOR will enjoy a significant pricing power and become a fierce competitor, we expect them to continue to benefit from their strong local brand name and high customer loyalty," the analyst adds. Foreign banks (mainly Nordic) also retain a strong presence in Norway, and the government maintains significant control despite recent legal reforms, notes Moody's.

"The 1990s crisis continues to be at the forefront of management's mind, and risk management practices are prudent," says Ms. Caris. Lending has been largely to households for mortgages, and corporate loan portfolios are well-diversified overall, although some discrepancy exists, for example at some savings banks. Further, loan losses are low, while the capacity of banks to absorb them has improved. "That said, Moody's will continue to monitor closely the comparatively higher exposure of Norwegian banks to inherently riskier industries -- mainly shipping and fish farming, given the characteristics of the national economy," says the analyst. According to Moody's, although direct market risks have also been kept low, Norwegian banks are indirectly exposed to capital markets via their insurance activities, although to a modest extent.

Moody's notes that Norwegian banks have also managed in recent years to find new funding alternatives at a relatively competitive price, although for some this translated into higher liquidity risk. This is mainly the case for savings banks, which have been funding themselves short-term to take advantage of the low interest rates. Moody's, nonetheless acknowledges their strict liquidity management as well as the recent lengthening of their funding strategy.

Finally, intense competition remains among the key challenges as banks follow a similar strategy to grow in retail lending as well as in wealth management, where high structural growth opportunities have been identified, says Moody's. Savings disintermediation is still at an early stage in Norway. In addition, the rating agency also points out that the drastic decline in interest rates has been extremely harmful, given its magnitude, the banks' balance sheet structure and the higher proportion of net interest income in total. Thus, despite the higher volatility of fee income from savings-related products, the capacity of banks to diversify their income is essential for their future profitability. It is especially important as many players do not see much extra "fat" to cut after recent efficiency programmes, although they have not reached the lean cost bases of some other Nordic banks and continue to face high pressures (mainly in staff and IT/technology), Moody's concludes.

* * * * *

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS ONLY: For a copy of this report, please contact London Press Information +44-20-7772-5456; Louisa Pearce-Smith in Paris +33-1-5330-1073; New York Press Information +1-212-553-0376; Juan Pablo Soriano in Madrid +34-91-310-1454; Henry MacNevin in Milan +39-02-5821-5580; Hector Lim in Sydney +612 9270 8102; Detlef Scholz in Frankfurt +49-69-707-30-700; Adel Satel in Limassol +357-25-586-586; Tokyo Press Information +813-5408-4110; Hilary Parkes in Toronto +1-416-214-1635; Hong Kong Press Information +852-2916-1150; Luiz Tess in São Paulo +55-11-3443-7444; Benito Solis in Mexico City +5255-9171-1817; or Reynold Leegerstee in Johannesburg +27-11-217-5471 or visit our web site at www.moodys.com

London
Samuel S. Theodore
Managing Director
Financial Institutions Group
Moody's Investors Service Ltd.
JOURNALISTS: 44 20 7772 5456
SUBSCRIBERS: 44 20 7772 5454

London
Anne Caris
Asst Vice President - Analyst
Financial Institutions Group
Moody's Investors Service Ltd.
JOURNALISTS: 44 20 7772 5456
SUBSCRIBERS: 44 20 7772 5454

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