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Banking: Restraint pays off for Portugal

The relatively conservative approaches of the financial system and banks’ customers seem to be helping the nation deal relatively well with the financial crisis and recession. But there are still risks ahead. Laurence Neville reports.

MUCH TO THE chagrin of the Portuguese, their country is often seen as an adjunct of Spain despite its separate language, culture and long history. The global financial crisis provides yet another way for Portugal to differentiate itself from its larger neighbour. While Spain has notoriously binged on cheap credit and indulged its fondness for real estate development, Portugal has played it relatively straight.

Unlike many in Europe, Portugal’s banks weren’t loaded up with leveraged products that have since turned to toxic waste (in that sense, the old-fashioned strictures of the Banco de Portugal regarding banks’ investments are similar to those of the Banco de España). However, Portuguese banks – unlike Spanish banks – also remained cautious about mortgage and consumer lending.

Yet bankers in Lisbon remain cautious about talking up their performance and their potential. Euromoney contacted the five leading Portuguese banking groups – normally firms happy to talk about their credentials – but none would speak on the record.

Perhaps this reticence is wise. Markets are changing fast, and few bankers want to risk looking complacent or overly optimistic in any market. The taint of hubris is to be avoided at all costs. But does radio silence mask real concerns for the banking sector?

"In many ways, the character of the Portuguese banking sector reflects that of the Portuguese themselves in being extremely conservative," says a spokesman at Millennium BCP, the country’s largest bank, in Lisbon.

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