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Portugal’s Banks Fear ‘Cyprus Virus’

Fraser Hall | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images

Portugal's top bankers have called on Europe's leaders to stop "playing with fire" and moderate their stance towards the euro zone periphery, or risk instilling alarm among bank depositors in future.

In separate interviews, the heads of the country's two biggest banks – Millennium BCP and Banco Espírito Santo – said they were concerned that the precedent set by Europe's treatment of Cyprus's recent troubles had increased nervousness across the euro zone to dangerous levels.

(Read More: Cyprus Shows Urgent Need for Banking Union: S&P)

"Leaders need to moderate their language. This could be very bad," Ricardo Espírito Santo Salgado, chief executive of BES, told the Financial Times.

Nuno Amado, his opposite number at BCP, talked of a "Cyprus virus", saying: "If someone had designed a plan to hurt the European market, it would be difficult to think of something better . . . You can't keep playing with fire."

The comments come in the wake of the EU's messy deal to bail out Cyprus, which initially envisaged a so-called haircut even on deposits below the pan-Europe €100,000 deposit guarantee. Although the threshold for haircuts was later lifted above the guarantee level, bankers across the euro zone complained that the damage had been done.

(Read More: Markets Take 'Glass Half Full' View of Weak European GDP)

Portuguese bankers said that for several days in the wake of the Cyprus affair customers were jittery. "There was huge nervousness," Mr. Amado said. BES and Portugal's number three bank, BPI, experienced a rush of clients wanting to move cash from deposit accounts into vaults within the banks.

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"Most clients in Portugal don't trust deposit guarantees and they have no means to open accounts abroad," said one person close to BPI. "They choose vaults instead."

Both BCP and BPI received government bailout money in the form of convertible bonds following Portugal's 2011 bailout by the troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The whole banking sector is under pressure as a result of the shrinking economy, rising unemployment and worsening bad debts, with some analysts predicting banks may need further government assistance.

(Read More: Despite Reforms, Euro Zone Labor Market Is Becoming Less Efficient)

The problems of the sector are not helped by the fact the leading shareholders in two of the banks are under pressure themselves. BES's leading outside shareholder is France's Crédit Agricole, whose own capital position is under stress, making it unlikely that it would be prepared to inject fresh capital into the bank. BPI's 46 percent shareholder is Spain's La Caixa, which is facing its own challenges in its domestic market and would similarly be loath to inject more capital.

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