By Andrei Khalip
LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal's top bank was under new management on Monday, installing a respected economist as chief executive under pressure from the central bank after worries about the lender's links to the financially troubled Espirito Santo empire had unsettled international markets.
An audit of the family-owned holding companies behind Banco Espirito Santo <BES.LS> found financial irregularities that raised the prospect of potentially destabilizing losses at the country's largest listed bank.
The news last week sent Portugal's debt and stock markets into turmoil that spread to Europe as well as other firms in the Espirito Santo family's sphere.
Portugal Telecom <PTC.LS>, waiting to be reimbursed on over $1 billion in debt issued by one of the family holding companies, was hard hit.
Pressured by Portugal's central bank, BES announced on Monday that its board had put in place new executives - including economist Vitor Bento as chief executive - hastening changes not due to happen until the end of the month in order to distance itself from the family group.
Bento is joined by new chief financial officer Joao Moreira Rato, who headed Portugal's IGCP debt agency, and new deputy CEO Jose Honorio. Together they will replace Espirito Santo family members including its patriarch Ricardo Espirito Santo Salgado, who had already agreed to resign, and other board members loyal to the family.
"TIME HAS BEEN LOST"
With Bento expected to start work at BES on Monday, television trucks started to arrive outside the bank's Lisbon headquarters from early morning.
Portugal's Negocios business newspaper has called on the new management to seek bankruptcy for the Espirito Santo group, and for regulators to open investigations against the former CEO and CFO.
"BES will be saved from the family. But time has been lost and now has to be recovered," it said in a commentary on Monday after warning on Sunday that delays in resolving the issue threatened to throw Portugal back into recession.
BES has insisted that any losses relating to its 1.15 billion-euro exposure to Espirito Santo holdings would not put it at risk, and the government has said BES - the only major Portuguese bank that did not request state aid under a bailout during the country's debt crisis - is solvent. Lisbon exited the three-year EU- and IMF-funded bailout in May.
While investors around Europe worry about the impact of financial problems at BES, the Portuguese public are also coming to terms with the fall from grace of a family that has long been at the heart of the country's business elite.
"It's kind of scary to see these guys, who everyone knew as the owners of Portugal, leaving such a great mess behind. But we all knew the Espirito Santos had nothing holy about them," Luis Palma, a 46-year-old taxi driver, said, referring to the family name that translates as the Holy Spirit.
Salgado has said in a newspaper interview that he and the bank had no knowledge of the problems at the Luxembourg-registered Espirito Santo International SA after an audit carried out earlier this year and made public in May found a "serious financial condition" there.
Reuters contacted ESI for comment but received no reply.
BES shares, which have lost over half of their value in the past month, slumped more than 8 percent on Monday to 0.44 euros, but the broader market in Lisbon was higher, including Portugal Telecom that rose 3.3 percent off its all-time lows hit last week.
As part of the family's moves to loosen its grip on BES, Espirito Santo Financial Group (ESFG) - the bank's main shareholder - said on Monday it had sold a 4.99 percent stake, which reduced its holding in the bank to 20.1 percent. It did not say to whom it had sold the stake.
ESFG is part of the business empire of the Espirito Santo family - a vast conglomerate with holdings in banks, hotels and healthcare - which founded BES, the country's largest listed bank by assets.
The family lost control of BES in a billion euro capital raise completed in June.
As part of Monday's statement, ESFG said it had applied for a waiver in order to get around a 180-day lockup period linked to the bank's rights offer in order to enable it to sell the shares.
"The sale of the 4.99 percent stake in the bank was made to raise proceeds to enable ESFG to satisfy its repayment obligations under a margin loan," ESFG said in a statement.
"The proceeds of the sale, together with certain other collateral held by the lending bank, will result in the full and final payment of the margin loan and fully extinguishes all obligations thereunder," it said.
($1 = 0.7331 Euros)
(Writing by Sophie Walker; Editing by Giles Elgood)