Debt Crisis Infects Companies via Bank Loan Costs: Euro Credit

Banks in Spain and Italy are curbing loans and charging customers more as aftershocks from the sovereign debt crisis drive their own borrowing cost higher.

“They can’t lend what they don’t have, I suppose,” said Francesc Elias, the owner of Bomba Elias, a pumps and filters maker near Barcelona, which shelved a 100,000-euro ($144,000) plan to open a Bahrain office when it couldn’t get an affordable bank loan. “The banks are very clever about finding new ways to charge us more.”

Spanish and Italian government bond yields surged to euro-era records this quarter as Greece struggled to avoid default, driving the cost of insuring against nonpayment by the region’s banks to a record and making it harder for them to sell bonds. Spain pays 5.35 percent for 10-year money, up from an average of 4.07 percent in the first half of 2010, while Italy pays 5.65 percent compared with a 4.05 percent average last year.

As a result, banks such as Banco Santander SA, Spain’s biggest lender, are passing higher funding costs on to their customers. Santander’s return on Spanish loans rose to 3.63 percent in June from 3.37 percent in December, as the yield it pays on deposits fell to 1.32 percent from 1.54 percent.

UniCredit SpA, Italy’s biggest lender, said on Aug. 3 it’s being more selective about who it lends to and levying higher rates. One out of three companies asking for credit in the second quarter period didn’t get it or obtained less than they asked for, according to Confcommercio, an Italian retailers’ lobby group.

‘Increasingly Stringent’

“The cost of financing our current activities has increased significantly,” said Riccardo Illy, chairman of Italian coffee maker Gruppo Illy SpA. “We don’t have any problems accessing credit because we’re large enough, but we know many businesses that are having trouble because banks’ requirements have become increasingly stringent.”

Spanish banks including Santander and Bankia SA are shrinking their loan books after being pummeled by a collapse in credit demand for real-estate and surging loan defaults. Santander’s Spanish lending shrank an annual 7 percent through June, mirroring a trend in the Bank of Spain’s data that show a 1.9 percent annual drop in lending to companies and individuals. Lending at Bankia, the third-biggest lender formed from a merger of seven savings banks, was down 2.3 percent from December.

The average interest rate on new company loans of as much as 1 million euros rose to 4.70 percent in July from 4.57 percent in June and 3.88 percent in December, according to the Bank of Spain. Companies took out 15.9 billion euros of those loans in July, down from 18.7 billion euros in the same month a year ago and 39.2 billion euros in July 2007, according to the central bank.

‘The Bottom Line’

“In our case, it’s not so much the issue of access to credit that’s the problem, it’s the fact that it costs more,” said Luis Zapatero, chairman of Bodegas Riojanas, a Spanish winemaker, which needs to finance putting wine aside to create reserve vintages that may not go on sale until several years after bottling. “Our financial costs have increased 15 percent and that goes straight to the bottom line.”

Banks face a dilemma when trying to pass on increased funding costs in full because they risk driving more borrowers into default, said Barclays Capital’s Pascual. Bad loans in the Spanish banking system are near 7 percent of total lending, the highest since 1995.

Increased Caution

“Banks are more cautious in giving long-term loans because it has become more difficult to transfer increasing funding costs to customers,” said Giovanni Bossi, chief executive officer of Banca Ifis SpA, an Italian bank specializing in short-term loans to companies.

As lending slides in Spain and banks struggle to finance themselves, the outlook for growth is worsening, said Antonio Ramirez, an analyst at Keefe Bruyette & Woods in London. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Sept. 14 that Spain might miss its 1.3 percent growth target this year because of the “situation of financial tension and economic uncertainty, mainly because of Greece.”

Banks, meantime, are struggling to sell bonds. The last benchmark-sized issue of 1 billion euros or more of debt by a Spanish bank was a sale of public-sector covered bonds by Santander in June. UniCredit paid a record spread for Italian covered bonds when it raised 1 billion euros from a sale of 10-year notes that yielded 215 basis points more than the benchmark mid-swap rate.

‘Negative Feedback Loop’

“It’s the negative feedback loop between what’s happening to the sovereign and the effect on banks and the economy,” said Antonio Garcia Pascual, chief southern European economist at Barclays Capital in London. “To a large extent, the problems facing Spanish lenders also apply to Italy.”

As financing costs rise in Italy, analysts have started revising down their growth estimates for that country. Nomura International Plc economists revised their Italian gross domestic product growth estimate for 2012 last month to 0.5 percent from 0.8 percent previously.

“The increased financial costs will become more evident in the dynamics of the economy,” said Giada Giani, an economist at Citigroup Inc. in London. “I definitely think that the deterioration of financial conditions is a key factor in the macro-economic picture.”

A survey by Spain’s national statistics institute published in May showed that one in every four companies that sought loans in 2010 failed in the attempt, compared with 10 percent in 2007. Half of the companies surveyed said they’d been able to line up the credit needed, compared with 80 percent in 2007, according to the survey.

Meanwhile, Spanish banks are also demanding higher fees from customers, Bank of Spain data show. The average six-month charge for a retail customer current account jumped 15 percent to 25.80 euros at the end of August from 22.36 euros in December, according to the regulator.

“There’s a double effect because commissions have also increased dramatically,” said Elias, the owner of the pumps and filter maker, who has cut his workforce to 12 from 20 in the past year. “It affects any kind of investment plan.”

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