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The banking system in eastern Europe is increasingly vulnerable to a severe economic downturn, Moody’s has warned, saying western European banks with local subsidiaries are at risk of ratings downgrades. “The relative vulnerabilties in east European banking systems will be exposed by an increasingly tougher operating environment in eastern Europe as a result of a steep and long economic downturn coupled with macroeconomic vulnerabilities,” Moody’s said in a report. The ratings agency said it expected “continuous downward pressure on east European bank ratings” because of deteriorating asset quality, falling local currencies, exposure to a regional slump in real-estate and the units’ reliance on scarce short-term funding. Eurozone banks have the largest exposure to central and eastern Europe, with liabilities of $1,500bn – about 90 per cent of total foreign bank exposure to the region. Shares of the handful of banks with substantial investments in eastern Europe – led by Austria’s Raiffeisen and Erste Bank, Société Générale of France, Italy’s UniCredit (which owns Bank Austria) and Belgian group KBC – tumbled after the ratings agency said it was concerned about the impact of a slowdown and the ability of the parent banks to support their support units in the region. The Austrian banking system is the most vulnerable, with eastern Europe accounting for nearly half of its foreign loans, while Italian banks are exposed to Poland and Croatia and Scandinavian institutions to the Baltic states. Central and eastern European currencies have come under intense pressure in recent weeks. The credit crisis has raised fears over the region’s ability to finance its current account deficits and slowing global growth has heightened concerns over the health of its export-dependent economies. The Polish zloty plunged to a five-year low against the euro on Tuesday, while the Czech koruna hit a three-year trough against the single currency and the Hungarian forint falling to a record low. The Prague and Warsaw stock indices meanwhile fell to their lowest levels in five years, while the smaller markets of Budapest, Zagreb and Bucharest skirted close to multi-year lows. The euro dropped to a two-month low against the dollar on Tuesday on heightened concerns over eurozone banks’ exposure to the worsening conditions in eastern Europe. Amid the growing sense of crisis in eastern European economies, Hungary on Tuesday outlined plans to save Ft210bn (€680m, $860m) this year to prevent an increase in the budget deficit. Hungary’s economy is expected to contract by up to 3 per cent this year, much more than earlier expectations. Antje Praefcke at Commerzbank said eastern European currencies were in a “self-feeding depreciation spiral.” “The creditworthiness of local banks, companies and private households, who hold mainly foreign currency denominated debt, is deteriorating with each depreciation in eastern European currencies, thus further undermining confidence in the currencies,” she said. Ms Praefcke said further depreciation of eastern European currencies was thus a distinct possibility, which was likely to undermine the euro. “The collapse of these currencies is likely to constitute a risk for the euro,” she said. “So far markets have largely ignored this fact, but are unlikely to be able to maintain this approach if the weakness of the eastern European currencies continues.” Western European banks have piled into the former Communist countries in recent years as economic growth in the region outpaced domestic gains. The accession of 10 new members to the European Union in 2004, and of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, added to optimism about the region. In 2007, Raiffeisen and Erste Bank earned the vast majority of their pre-tax profits in eastern European countries including Russia and Ukraine. Since the onset of the global financial crisis, Hungary, Latvia and Ukraine have all received emergency loans from the International Monetary Fund, with other countries in the region expected to follow.