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Foreign banks in Ukraine face choice - hunker down or cut losses

* Foreign banks have pared back exposure in Ukraine

* Could see an opportunity to grab market share

* Banks will likely face write-downs on bad loans

* Russian banks have pledged commitment to market

MOSCOW, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Foreign banks have pared back their exposure in Ukraine in recent years and the unfolding crisis could force them to choose between cutting their losses or holding on to grab market share.

While Russian banks retain a strong presence, several European banks have pulled out of Ukraine since the global financial crisis in 2008.

The toppling of President Viktor Yanukovich by violent protests has pushed an already frail economy close to default, with the former Soviet state's new leaders appealing for $35 billion over two years to hold up its economy.

With the hryvnia currency falling to a record low, some banks may be watching to see if the new government will be as pro-European Union as expected.

"You have to make a decision whether you take your loss now or ride it out and that may require big losses but leave you with market share at the other side," said one senior banker in Moscow.

Among banks which have pared back in Ukraine since 2008 are Germany's Commerzbank, which sold its Bank Forum unit in 2012; Austria's Erste Group Bank, which sold its loss-making unit in 2012; and Swedish bank Swedbank, which sold its subsidiary last year.

Italy's Intesa Sanpaolo said in January it would sell its Ukrainian unit Pravex-Bank to a unit of Ukraine-based Group DF.

Foreign banks in Ukraine have been shrinking their balance sheets, said Timothy Ash, analyst at Standard Bank. "The only guys that are expanding in Ukraine are Russian banks and even their future in Ukraine must be in doubt."

Emerging Europe's second-biggest lender Raiffeisen Bank International has been considering offers for its Ukraine operations. "There are two or three offers that really look closely into the data and have due diligence," a Raiffeisen spokeswoman said.

Moody's rating agency said Austrian banks including Raiffeisen and UniCredit unit Bank Austria own Ukrainian units with combined total assets of 8.0 billion euros ($11 billion) at the end of 2013, down from 8.8 billion euros in the third quarter of last year.

"Austrian banks' strategic decision to exit the Ukraine will be delayed, something RBI had considered before the mid-November 2013 start of the country's political crisis," Moody's said in a credit outlook note.

Banks remaining include Hungary's OTP Bank and Italy's Unicredit. Unicredit said in December it would not walk away from Ukraine, as its business had been doing well.

French bank BNP's subsidiary UkrSibbank, which has about $3 billion in assets, declined comment.

Ash said foreign banks had been put off Ukraine due to the high risk of doing business, high credit risk, a high ratio of non-performing loans and the exchange rate risk.

"If you are a senior bank manager (overseas) and you are on the edge about a decision what to do, it's another reason to get out," Ash said of the recent unrest.

RUSSIAN BANKS ENTRENCHED

Russian banks seem willing to stay the course in Ukraine. The largest, Sberbank and Bank VTB, have pledged long-term commitment although they are halting lending.

While other foreign lenders have cut their Ukraine exposure in the five years since Lehman collapsed - to 20 percent of Ukraine banking sector assets in 2012 from 40 percent in 2008, according to a Raiffeisen survey - Russian banks still account for 12 percent.

They have around $28 billion of exposure, President Vladimir Putin has said, naming Gazprombank, Vnesheconombank (VEB), Sberbank and VTB as creditors.

Credit agencies have said Russian banks should be able to cover any losses with earnings or get government support.

VTB has said it has exposure to Ukraine of 20 billion roubles ($560 million), largely through big private companies, and that the bank's business there amounts to about 2-3 percent of total operations. VTB's CEO Andrei Kostin said on Wednesday the bank aimed to stay in Ukraine for the long term.

Sberbank's CEO German Gref said last week the bank had no intention of leaving the market. Sberbank had exposure of 130 billion roubles ($4 billion) to Ukraine - or less than 1 percent of its balance sheet. 1/8ID nL2N0LQ119 3/8

State development bank VEB said in December its loan exposure in Ukraine was nearly $4 billion, mostly through unit Prominvestbank. It said on Monday it had no plans to exit.

Ekaterina Trofimova, a Gazprombank board member, said in December that the bank was the least exposed to Ukrainian risk among major Russian banks and has no subsidiary there.

The political changes could, however, work against the Russian banks, said Chris Weafer, a senior partner at Moscow-based consultancy Macro-Advisory.

"If (the new government) is overtly pro-Europe ... I would expect more of the European banks to be coming in and perhaps pushing the Russian banks out," he said.

MEASURING THE RISK

The main risks for foreign banks in Ukraine are that the currency slide will make it hard for companies and individuals to repay large foreign currency borrowings, analysts say.

Fitch credit rating agency has estimated that around 60 percent of lending in Ukraine is done in foreign currency.

"The focus has been on the political casualties but fairly soon we will start hearing about economic casualties particularly associated with the currency collapse," said Weafer. "(Banks) will be writing off a lot of their loan portfolio in Ukraine."

Banks have been cautioned by the U.S. Treasury about potentially suspicious transfers of financial assets by Yanukovich or members of his inner circle.

In any case, said one banker, who asked not to be identified, "If you have a big loan out to a Yanukovich (family) enterprise, you are not going to be in very good shape."

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