Europeans scramble to save failing banks

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) âÄî Germany joined Ireland and Greece on Sunday in guaranteeing all private bank accounts, putting EuropeâÄôs biggest economy at odds with calls for a unified European response to the global financial meltdown. The decision came as governments across Europe scrambled to save failing banks, working largely on their own a day after leaders of the continentâÄôs four biggest economies called for tighter regulation and a coordinated response. Chancellor Angela Merkel said that no citizen should fear for the safety of their investments, speaking to reporters as her government held crisis talks on the collapse of a ballyhooed $48.4 billion bailout of Hypo Real Estate AG, the countryâÄôs second-biggest property lender. German Finance Ministry spokesman Torsten Albig said the unlimited guarantee covered some $785 billion in savings and checking accounts as well as time deposits, or CDs. In Iceland âÄî particularly hard-hit by the credit crunch âÄî government officials and banking chiefs were discussing a possible rescue plan for the countryâÄôs overstretched commercial banks. Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme said he aims to find a new owner for troubled bank Fortis NV to restore confidence in the company before the opening of markets on Monday. Leterme told two media outlets that government officials were going over a takeover bid for FortisâÄô Belgian operations. The bankâÄôs Dutch operations were nationalized amid fears they could go insolvent. British treasury chief Alistair Darling said that he was ready to take âÄúpretty big steps that we wouldnâÄôt take in ordinary timesâÄù to help the country weather the credit crunch. In the past year the government has nationalized struggling mortgage lenders Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley. âÄúThe European banking industry is feeling the wind of default blowing from the other side of the Atlantic,âÄù said Axel Pierron, senior vice president at Celent, a Boston, Massachusetts-based financial research and consulting firm. The erosion has also injured overall confidence and caused concern among investors, politicians and the European public. The leaders of Germany, France, Britain and Italy met Saturday to discuss the meltdown that has leapfrogged across the Atlantic from the United States to Europe, but shied away from action on the scale of the massive US$700 billion bailout passed by the U.S. Congress on Friday and later signed into law by President George W. Bush. Their failure to agree to an EU-wide plan showcased the divisions in Europe on how to deal with the crisis. France had suggested a multibillion-euro (multibillion-dollar) EU-wide government bailout plan, but backed off after Germany said banks must find their own way out. French President Nicolas SarkozyâÄôs top adviser, Claude Gueant, insisted that a âÄúcommon European planâÄù had come out of the summit. âÄúWhat is certain and what the citizens of France and Europe must know is that their (banking) establishments wonâÄôt be left in difficulty,âÄù he told Europe-1 radio on Sunday. GermanyâÄôs Hypo Real Estate said Saturday that the rescue plan had fallen apart after private lenders withdrew support, a key element to the proposal that had already been approved by the EU earlier this week. Icelandic banks expanded rapidly after deregulation of the domestic financial market in the 1990s and now have combined foreign liabilities in excess of $138.34 billion âÄî dwarfing the tiny countryâÄôs gross domestic product of US$19.37 billion. The government last week took over IcelandâÄôs third-largest bank, Glitnir, a decision that prompted major credit ratings agencies to downgrade both IcelandâÄôs four major banks and its government credit rating. Looming large was a growing sense that the Federal Reserve and EuropeâÄôs major central banks âÄî which have been flooding euros and dollars to banks that have grown increasingly unwilling to lend money even to themselves âÄî were ready to institute emergency cuts to their benchmark interest rates this week. None of the banks, including the European Central Bank and Bank of England, have commented on potential rate hikes or cuts. But analysts believe the Bank of England, which meets this Thursday, will likely lower its rate below 5 percent. The ECB left its rate unchanged at 4.25 percent on Thursday, but opened the door to a rate cut. Robert Brusca, chief economist at the New York-based Fact and Opinion Economics, said that the ECB does issue such a cut it would a be a sign âÄúthat theyâÄôre really, really scared.âÄù