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2008–09 Belgian financial crisis

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The 2008–09 Belgian financial crisis is a major financial crisis that hit Belgium from mid-2008 onwards. Two of the country's largest banks – Fortis and Dexia – started to face severe problems, exacerbated by the financial problems hitting other banks around the world. The value of their stocks plunged. The government managed the situation by bailouts, selling off or nationalizing banks, providing bank guarantees and extending the deposit insurance. Eventually Fortis was split into two parts. The Dutch part was nationalized, while the Belgian part was sold to the French bank BNP Paribas. Dexia group was dismantled, Dexia Bank Belgium was nationalized.

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Transcription

How did 19 countries abandon their own currency for the Euro? How did it cause the Eurocrisis? How is the Euro managed and mismanaged? I wrote this episode in such a way that even if you know almost nothing about economics, you will still understand it. So enjoy! The European Union is compromise upon compromise by 28 different-thinking countries, balancing between keeping national sovereignty or giving it up for the greater good, for the European project to function properly. the EU is a tower of ductape. This is shown perfectly in action with the Euro. Whenever you go abroad, you have to exchange your currency for that of the country you’re visiting, paying a small percentage of your money just to get back less money. This hampered European trade and so in 1999 the Euro came into force for companies and governments. In 2002 coins and paper bills were introduced for the average citizen. So, which countries have the Euro? To be part of the Euro you must adhere to 4 criteria: your country’s spending must be less than 103% of its income, your debt less than 60% of your economy -GDP-, and have low inflation and interest rates. Any EU country who achieves these goals must join the Euro. Except Denmark and the UK, who have special opt-outs. The initial countries to join the Euro were Portugal, Spain, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands, Ireland, Germany, Finland, Austria, and Italy. Greece joined in 2001, Slovenia 2008, Malta and Cyprus 2008, Slovakia 2009, , Estonia 2011, Latvia 2014, and Lithuania in 2015. So what does joining the Euro mean? Countries relinquish their control over their monetary policy, which means the right to print money, set interest rate -how expensive bank loans are-, and inflation rate -the price increases for products every year. Instead this is handled by the European Central Bank, or ECB. The ECB is run by the 19 governors, one of each of the national central banks of the Eurozone. But what is most important is what the ECB WASN’T allowed to do: fiscal policy. “okaaay, what the hell is fiscal policy?” Fiscal policy is how much taxes a government collects and how much it spends. Countries usually spend more than they collect in taxes, so they borrow extra money. And here lies the beginning of the Eurocrisis. Government want money and investors are willing to give that money, if they get a little bit extra back when the government has to repay, called interest. So an investor looks at Germany, for example: “hmm, let’s see, you always pay back your debt, strong economy, and you don’t have a lot of other debt. This is a safe risk so I want only 3% interest” but that same investor looks at Greece and goes “your government collapsed in the 70s, small economy, low tax income. This is very risky. I want 18% interest” But this changed with the Euro. Investors now looked at Greece and thought “well, if Greece can’t pay it back then at least Germany will… they have the same currency afterall” This meant southern European countries could borrow A LOT more money. so, to get re-elected, leaders went on a massive borrowing spree to give jobs and early pensions to their voters. And how did they repay these debts? By borrowing even more money, of course. And to make sure the EU didn’t get angry for borrowing too much, Greece simply lied about how much debt they really had. In Ireland and spain, at the time, this cheap borrowing lead to a housing bubble. This basically means that you could buy a house that was too expensive for you with a cheap loan. And if you couldn’t repay your loan you just sell your house to repay your debt and make a little bit of profit as well… at least, that’s how it was sold to the customer. The same happened in the USA. When too many people tried selling their house, the price of property went down. Every investor in property suddenly saw a lot of their money disappear. Why is this so important? Because that meant there was no more money to spend on loans. The fantasy of cheap borrowing came to a halt and the global recession had begun. All the companies who had invested in US, Irish, or Spanish housing debt were close to bankruptcy. So how could this be solved? You might often hear people say “pfft, just let them go bankrupt. It’s their own fault”. But they forget if you want to buy a house or start a business, you come to a bank. If the banks fall, you have nowhere to go. You want to take out money from your bank? Yeah, you can’t anymore, your bank is gone. Pension funds are also big investors. Your pension, your parent’s pension, your grandparent’s pension… gone. Millions of people in poverty in an instance. And what about the countries in debt? Regular companies who did nothing wrong, car makers, software companies, producers of food all had investments in banks or companies with debt. Company after company would fall, tens of millions without jobs, poverty would run rampant. These same companies also had invested in government debt of Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece. After a year of recession, these 5 countries who were on the verge of bankruptcy. Remember, the only way some were able to repay their debt was with more debt. But nobody was giving them any loans anymore. Meaning pensions, social welfare, and jobs were at risk. So how can the governments prevent bankruptcy? Normally, when you have control over your own currency. You simply print more money to pay off debt, salaries, and social welfare. This lowers the value of your currency, meaning your products become cheaper for foreign consumers and for tourists. This is how most countries got out of the recession. Well this had become impossible with the Euro. Low prices for a struggling economy is good. But when your currency loses value, it becomes more expensive to buy goods from abroad. Not a big deal for struggling economies, you won’t be buying a lot of foreign products anyway, you don’t have the money. But if your economy is doing well, such as Germany or France, raising prices isn’t likely to get you re-elected. And without Germany or France backing your idea, it ain’t gonna happen. So the best and easiest way to solve your crisis is gone. “But large countries like the USA find a way to support their poorer regions as well, don’t they?” The USA has many systems in place to transfer money from rich regions to poor regions via unemployment benefits, healthcare for the poor, and government investment projects. In the EU, this is impossible. Sure, Dutch citizens gladly spend their taxes on other poor Dutch citizens, ask them to pay for other poor European citizens in Greece, you’ll most likely hear a resounding ‘NO’. Most people in the USA feel like US citizens. Most people in the EU feel Irish, German, Dutch, etc. So, imagine now you are Greece. What can you do? As the largest economy in Europe, everybody looked at Germany to help pay for the debt. If these 5 countries couldn’t pay their loans back, then European companies could go bankrupt. If nothing was done, France might go bankrupt next, and then… Germany. So, Germany reluctantly agreed on the condition that these 5 countries adopt the German way of government spending. Germany, and most northern European countries, are generally very financially responsible, collects all their taxes, and people expect little in government support. This was not so in most southern European countries. ‘If you want OUR money. You need to adopt OUR morals’. Meaning these 5 countries had to cut spending, borrow less, and repay current debt. Great idea, right? Hmmm, not so much. For one, the government is by far the largest spender in any economy. Cutting government spending means fewer jobs, less government investment, and lower pensions. These people might no longer afford a car, meaning the car salesmen has to fire someone or go bankrupt, meaning they can’t buy as many groceries, meaning a supermarket firing employees, and on and on it goes until you reach the high unemployment rates we see today. So what has been done to solve the Eurocrisis? First of all, the affected countries sold government owned companies, raised the retirement age, and made it easier to start a businesses. But this wasn’t enough. Secondly, The EU set up a fund of 200 billion euro to keep failing companies and governments afloat. Thirdly, the European Central Bank began buying up government debt. So if you invested in Greek loans, you could sell that loan to the ECB to immediately get some of your investment back. Meaning people were willing to invest again in Greek loans so the Greek people could buy houses and start businesses again: boosting the economy. Fourthly, to make sure another Eurocrisis NEVER happened again, the ECB started checking government expenditure of Eurozone countries. If you spend too much as a country, the ECB can force you to spend less. And lastly, the Eurogroup was established. It is comprised of the 19 finance ministers, one from each Eurozone country. They come together to discuss the future of the Euro and to act quickly in case of an emergency. All in all, these measures finally seem to work for the affected countries, except for Greece. Greece is in a state where, according to current projections, it will stay in its current turmoil until at least 2060. That’s at least another 40 years of hardship because it joined the Euro and they are forced to spend much of their taxes on repaying debt. So, what more could be done? One solution is Grexit, a scenario where Greece would leave the Euro, return to it’s old currency, and finally devalue their own currency to boost export and tourism. Great idea for Greece, very unpopular in the rest of the Eurozone. If Greece leaves, other countries might leave. Perhaps leading to the collapse of the Euro and maybe even the EU. The other countries could forgive Greece’s debts. Just… forget about them. Most Greek debt is now in the hands of the ECB and governments; thus, it wouldn’t hurt the EU economy too much. Unfortunately, telling your voters you sent vast sums of money to a country who created the last crisis isn’t going to win you any votes. And thus, politically impossible. Then the third option: Eurobonds. Where all debt made by national governments would instead be turned into European debt, where all the countries would collectively repay debt. But the interest on Eurobonds would be higher than those of German and The Netherlands. And if Germany, the country paying the most to keep those 5 countries afloat, says ‘no’ to reform, it doesn’t happen. And so, we are left with a country staring into financial abys because politicians borrowed too much, countries didn’t want to give up their sovereignty, and bankers issuing bad debt. So can another Eurocrisis happen? Unlikely. But the Euro still has many flaws: it’s ruled too much by Germany, doesn’t help the poor regions who are in trouble, and the countries are too culturally diverse when it comes to government spending.

Contents

Context

The global financial crisis and the credit crunch shocked trust across the board. At the time of bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Belgium was in a long simmering political crisis. The Flemish and French communities were at odds with one another, especially after the electoral gains of the Flemish separatist party N-VA. The fear of Belgium splitting into two worsened the trust situation. Most of the events took place during the Leterme I, Van Rompuy I and Leterme II Governments. Didier Reynders was finance minister in all of them. The government was assisted by CBFA and the Court of Audit.

Historically Belgium has had a high public debt, which in 1993 peaked at 137.8% GDP. In order to be able to join the eurozone this was greatly reduced to around 100% GDP at the turn of the century. This budgetary discipline was continued after the introduction of the euro, in part to comply with the Maastricht Treaty. By 2007 the public debt of Belgium had dropped to 84% GDP. The reduced debt increased Belgium's ability to cope with the situation. The government interventions in the financial sector, and deficit spending at a time of economic slowdown has affected the government debt, rising again to 99.6% GDP in 2012.[1]

There is a degree of pillarisation in Belgium. Dexia belonged to the Catholic pillar, Ethias [nl] belongs to the socialist pillar.[2]

Bank crises

Fortis

Fortis was the largest Belgian bank in early 2008, positioned mainly in the Benelux. From mid-2008 onwards, the bank began facing severe liquidity problems and its stock value began rapidly declining. The problem was exacerbated by the earlier acquisition of the Dutch bank ABN Amro, which had depleted Fortis' capital.[3] Since the beginning of 2008, about 3% of the deposits stalled at the bank were withdrawn.[4] Belgian and Dutch ministers and financial regulators met each other on 27 September to tackle the crisis.[5][6]

The following day, Fortis was partially nationalised on 28 September 2008, with Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg investing a total of €11.2 billion (US$16.3 billion) in the bank. Belgium will purchase 49% of Fortis's Belgian banking division, with the Netherlands doing the same for the Dutch banking division. Luxembourg has agreed to a loan convertible into a 49% share of Fortis's Luxembourg banking division.[7]

On 3 October the Dutch government purchased the Dutch banking and insurance division of Fortis for €16.8 billion ($23.3 billion),[8] becoming the holder of Fortis Bank Nederland, Fortis Verzekeringen Nederland and Fortis Corporate Insurance, including the part of ABN Amro held by Fortis.[9] BNP Paribas, a French bank, took a majority stake in Fortis, while Belgian and Luxembourg governments became minority shareholders with blocking power in exchange for shares in BNP Paribas.[10] The deal does not include the main holding company, but does include the insurance and banking subsidiaries, except for Fortis Insurance International.[10][11] Dutch and Belgian shareholders' associations have requested a review of the takeover.[12][13]

Toxic assets were placed in a bad bank called Royal Park Investments. Thanks in part to good management and multi billion euro guarantees by the government the holding performed better than expected. In April 2013 it was sold for 2.3 billion euro to the American investment firm Lone Star. This was good news for public finances (1 billion euro) and the Fortis holding since renamed to Ageas.[14]

Dexia

Window ad announcing the name change of Dexia Bank Belgium
Window ad announcing the name change of Dexia Bank Belgium

On 30 September 2008 the Belgian, French and Luxembourg governments said they would put in €6.4bn to keep Dexia afloat.[15]

The problems at Dexia stem in part from a multi-billion loan to troubled German bank Depfa[16] and potential losses at its US subsidiary FSA. The Dexia board stated on 5 October 2008 that the capital addition by the governments would put it in a position in which it could deal with deteriorating market conditions, and that the credit risks associated with Hypo Real Estate and Depfa are only limited.[17][18][19]

Market conditioned worsened over the following years, generating losses. On the sale of FSA, due to the fall of Lehman brother and Icelandic banks and finally due to a large exposure to the Greek government-debt crisis. [20]

Eventually, in October 2011, the group was dismantled Dexia bank Belgium was bought by the Belgian federal government for 4 billion euro and changed its name to Belfius. Other healthy components were also sold off and the toxic assets remained in the Dexia Holding.[21][22] Dexia holding is Europe's largest bad bank.[23] Operating with the help of bank guarantees of the Belgian and French governments Dexia holding is tasked to minimize the losses on its toxic assets. The holding is still generating large losses, which led Belgium and France to inject another €5.5 billion in 2012.[24]

Dexia share holders

  • Ethias (previously OMOB/SMAP) is an insurance group and is also known for being a partner in the Ethias Arena and various sport sponsorships. Ethias held a 5% share in Dexia. In exchange for cooperation during the Dexia crisis the federal government agreed to extend the deposit insurance to also cover so called TAK 21 products. These include individual saving accounts by an insurance company rather than a bank. Although all TAK 21 products were covered it was mainly intended to protect Ethias' popular FIRST accounts.
When Dexia's share had collapsed, liquidity problems ensued. The group was forced to raise its capital and petitioned the federal and regional governments which were already among its largest shareholders.[25] The federal, Flemish and Walloon governments each invested 500 million euro for a total of 1.5 billion. The European Commission approved the bailout but demanded that it shed several activities including the FIRST accounts. Overall the group is to downsize 38%.[26]
In 2011 there was little interest in bonds issued by Ethias the governments were again petitioned. They agreed to buy into the bonds for a total of 180 million euro.[27]
Early 2013 the holding company Vitrufin (previously Ethias Finance nv) announced it had sold all of its Dexia shares. Thereby eliminating the groups exposure to Dexia.[28]
  • Arco the financial leg of the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions was liquidated. The government however does intend to compensate the nearly 800,000 participants in Arcopar, a related cooperative. Motivating its decision by stating that many were sold Arcopar shares under the pretext of a safe savings instrument rather than a speculative stock. This has led to legal action by investors who find that this violates the equality principle. In March 2013 the Council of State ruled largely against the investors, the question of equality and discrimination was passed on to the Constitutional Court of Belgium. Which is yet to make a decision.[29]
  • Gemeentelijke Holding was a holding company of which all Belgian municipalities and provinces were stake holders. The majority of its funds were invested in Dexia. After the nationalization it was liquidated.[30]

KBC

Since the beginning of October 2008, the price of KBC shares had dropped by more than half. The turbulence on the international financial markets and the skewed domestic situation after the government bail-out of its two largest competitors had increased the pressure. On Saturday 25 October, KBC was reported to be in talks with the Belgian government, hoping to obtain a €3.5 billion cash injection.[31] The company, which is also active in Central Europe, fears the harm of the financial woes hitting that region. The deal was approved.[32] The extra cash was used to increase its risk buffer.

Because KBC is seen by the Walloons as a mainly Flemish bank, the federal government was unwilling to participate in a second intervention. In January 2009, the Flemish government stepped in KBC for €2 billion. In addition KBC was allowed to issue bonds to the Flemish government for up to 1.5 billion euro.[33]

When the credit rating of MBIA an American insurer, which specializes in bond insuring, was downgraded to junk this decreased the value of KBC's risky assets. A third agreement was made. Mid-May 2009 the federal government announced it will offer bank guarantees for up to 2 billion euro.[34]

In 2012 KBC made a profit of 612 million euro. By the end of that year, and ahead of schedule, KBC had paid back all of the 3.5 billion euro of support from the federal government. It also plans to pay back the support from the Flemish government at an accelerated pace, starting with 1.17 billion in 2013.[35]

Government reaction

Besides the bail-outs of both Fortis and Dexia, the government also guaranteed all bank savings up to €20,000. This limit was later raised to €100,000.[36] On Saturday 11 October, the government announced that all banks, including the smaller ones, could obtain a similar guarantee on the condition that they are solvent and pay a fee.[37]

The government also negotiated in deals to protect the savings of the 16,000 Belgian customers of the Icelandic Kaupthing Bank whose money was locked up for months following the crisis in Iceland. They belonged to the subsidiary Kaupthing Bank Luxembourg. Which was finally taken over by Blackfish Capital the Belgian accounts were taken over by Crelan. Which later also took over Centea part of the activities KBC had to shed from the European Commission as compensation for the government support.[38]

When in late 2011 the interest rates on Belgian government bonds rose to irrational heights the government asked for support from the population and promoted the staatsbon. The staatsbon is a government bond that can be easily purchased at banks without any knowledge of the stock exchange. The long term rates on the international markets briefly spiked above 5.5%. The consumer purchasable bonds offered gross interests rates of 3.5%, 4%, 4.2% depending on the runtime of 3, 5 or 8 years. This was twice that of a standard savings account.[39] The attractive rate, and the promotion resulted in a success. This way the government managed to borrow 5.68 billion euro below market rates.[40] Colloquially this iteration of the staatsbon is referred to as the Leterme-staatsbon after then Prime minister Yves Leterme. Shortly after the measure, and with a new government finally being formed the interest rates started to drop. Early 2013 even to the lowest level they had been since the introduction of the euro(below 2%). Allowing them to be resold at a profit.[41]

Stock market reaction

BEL-20  reaction
BEL-20 reaction

The BEL-20 stock index lost more than 20% of its value during the week of 6–10 October, making it the largest weekly decline in the stock index' history.[42] At the time Fortis, Dexia and KBC stocks made up 29.78% of the weighted index.

See also

References

  1. ^ "Public Finances: debt to GDP". Belgian Federal Government. Archived from the original on 17 December 2013. Retrieved 30 April 2013.
  2. ^ Van Overtveldt, Johan. "De Ethias-schande". Trends.be. Retrieved 5 May 2013.
  3. ^ "Fortis chief executive out; chairman now faces shareholder anger". International Herald Tribune. 13 July 2008. Retrieved 29 September 2008.
  4. ^ Stevenson, Reed (27 September 2008). "FACTBOX-Finances at Belgian-Dutch group Fortis". Reuters. Archived from the original on 28 September 2008. Retrieved 29 September 2008.
  5. ^ "Belgian, Dutch Regulators Seek to Boost Confidence in Fortis". Bloomberg.com. 28 September 2008. Retrieved 29 September 2008.
  6. ^ "Talks on future of Fortis to run into Sunday". International Harald Tribune. 27 September 2008. Retrieved 29 September 2008.
  7. ^ van der Starre, Martijn; Meera Louis (29 September 2008). "Fortis Gets EU11.2 Billion Rescue From Governments". Bloomberg. Retrieved 29 September 2008.
  8. ^ Fortis wordt ontmanteld (in Dutch)
  9. ^ Nederlandse staat neemt Fortis Bank Nederland, Fortis Verzekeringen Nederland, Fortis Corporate Insurance en het Fortis-deel van ABN AMRO Holding volledig over (in Dutch)
  10. ^ a b "'Overname Fortis Bank door BNP Paribas rond'" (in Dutch). De Tijd. 5 October 2008. Retrieved 5 October 2008.
  11. ^ "BNP Paribas koopt ook Fortis Insurance" (in Dutch). De Standaard. 5 October 2008. Archived from the original on 8 October 2008. Retrieved 5 October 2008.
  12. ^ "Verzet tegen overname van Fortis groeit" (in Dutch). De Tijd. 8 October 2008. Archived from the original on 9 October 2008. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  13. ^ "Fortis shareholders may ask for vote". International Herald Tribune. 8 October 2008. Archived from the original on 12 October 2008. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  14. ^ "Government sells Fortis' bad bank to Americans" (in Dutch). vrtnieuws. 27 April 2013. Retrieved 27 April 2013.
  15. ^ "Second Belgian bank gets bail-out". BBC News. 30 September 2008. Archived from the original on 2 October 2008. Retrieved 30 September 2008.
  16. ^ "Regering moet twee banken redden". De Standaard. 5 October 2008. Archived from the original on 6 October 2008. Retrieved 5 October 2008.
  17. ^ "'Dexia kan hoofd bieden aan verslechterende marktomstandigheden'". De Tijd. 5 October 2008. Retrieved 5 October 2008.
  18. ^ "5 October 2008 press release –  Board of Directors" (PDF). Dexia. 5 October 2008. Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 October 2008. Retrieved 5 October 2008.
  19. ^ "5 October 2008 press release – Dexia – Hypo Real Estate (HRE)". Dexia. 5 October 2008. Archived from the original on 7 October 2008. Retrieved 5 October 2008.
  20. ^ "Dexia to Set Up 'Bad Bank' With Guarantees From France, Belgium". Retrieved 5 October 2011.
  21. ^ Dalton, Matthew (10 October 2011). "France, Belgium Reach Pact on Ailing Dexia". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 10 October 2011.
  22. ^ Belgium Paying EU4 Billion for Dexia Belgian Unit, Reynders Says. Bloomberg. Retrieved on 11 October 2011.
  23. ^ "EU zet licht op groen voor vers kapitaal Dexia". vrtnieuws. 28 December 2012. Retrieved 11 January 2013.
  24. ^ "België en Frankrijk pompen 5,5 miljard euro in Dexia". vrtnieuws. 8 November 2012. Retrieved 11 January 2013.
  25. ^ "Kapitaalverhoging Ethias is bijna rond". vrtniews. 27 October 2008. Retrieved 9 January 2013.
  26. ^ "Ethias moet 38 procent afslanken". vrtnieuws. 20 May 2010. Retrieved 9 January 2013.
  27. ^ "Overheden springen Ethias bij". vrtnieuws. 29 December 2011. Retrieved 9 January 2013.
  28. ^ "Vitrufin (Ethias) doet volledige participatie in Dexia van de hand". De Standaard. 10 January 2013. Retrieved 11 January 2013.
  29. ^ "Council of state does not nullify the arco compensation". vrtniuews (in Dutch). 25 March 2013. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
  30. ^ "Akkoord over vereffening Gemeentelijke Holding". De Morgen (in Dutch). 22 October 2011. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
  31. ^ "KBC mikt op extra buffer van 3,5 miljard euro". De Standaard (in Dutch). 25 October 2008. Retrieved 28 April 2013.
  32. ^ "Kapitaalinjectie KBC goedgekeurd, bank schrapt dividend". Het Laatste Nieuws (in Dutch). 26 October 2008. Retrieved 27 April 2013.
  33. ^ "Vlaamse regering pompt twee miljard in KBC". De Standaard (in Dutch). 22 January 2009. Retrieved 28 April 2013.
  34. ^ "KBC's MBIA Losses". forbes. 14 May 2009. Retrieved 28 April 2013.
  35. ^ "KBC betaalt overheid deze maand 3 miljard euro terug". Het Laatste Nieuws (in Dutch). 10 December 2012. Retrieved 27 April 2013.
  36. ^ "België beschermt spaarder tot 100.000 euro". vrtnieuws (in Dutch). 7 October 2008. Retrieved 28 April 2013.
  37. ^ "Leningen van alle banken nu gegarandeerd". vrtnieuws (in Dutch). 11 October 2008. Retrieved 28 April 2013.
  38. ^ "Centea is nu van Landbouwkrediet". vrtnieuws (in Dutch). 1 June 2011. Retrieved 30 April 2013.
  39. ^ "Hoeveel levert de staatsbon meer op dan het spaarboekje?". Het Laatste Nieuws (in Dutch). 2 December 2011. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
  40. ^ "Staatsbons brengen 5,68 miljard euro op". vrtnieuws. 5 December 2012. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
  41. ^ "Staatsbon-Leterme gaat vlot van de hand". Het Laatste Nieuws (in Dutch). 24 November 2012. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
  42. ^ "BEL20 Historical data". stooq.com. Retrieved 30 April 2013.
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