May 14, 2008 / 7:29 AM / 11 years ago

COLUMN-Europe sails into its own credit crunch

LONDON (Reuters) - Europe is next in line to feel the impact from tighter credit, a tough situation for an economy heavily dependent on bank financing.

File photo shows the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. REUTERS

The European Central Bank’s April bank lending officer survey showed a continuing sharp tightening in lending standards combined with a weakening in demand for loans.

The survey showed that loans to businesses, consumers and house buyers all became harder to get and more expensive in the second quarter of the year. And future expectations point to further tightening.

Why? Banks are worried about the prospects for the European economy, its housing market, their banking clients and the industries those clients compete in.

Yet even as banks are making their excuses to clients and declining to lend, those same clients are backing out of the door, smiling tightly and politely declining to apply for loans in the first place. Demand for loans in the euro area is deteriorating at the most rapid pace in the survey’s five-year history, according to the ECB, due to less interest in fixed investment or in mergers and acquisitions.

That could lead you to conclude that Europe is experiencing a normal slowdown but not a credit crunch.

However, while the euro zone has thus far been spared the worst of the impact of the global credit difficulties, there is reason to believe that is more a matter of timing than immunity.

“If the economy is slowing down and you get a supply-driven credit squeeze on top, then you might face a more significant and more prolonged downturn in economic growth,” said Marco Annunziata, head of global economics at Unicredit in London. “In Europe this is a significant risk.”

Bank borrowing by euro area non-financial corporations grew at an annual rate of 15 percent in the year to March 2008, a healthy clip by anyone’s standards. But, to put it bluntly, much of that lending has been involuntary.

With the capital markets largely shut, especially for riskier borrowers, many European companies have doubtless drawn down on their existing lines of credit. Those loans, many of which have 364-day maturities, were entered into before the credit storm, and when it comes to refinance, those corporations will find less money available, at a higher costs and with stricter standards as to who is fit to borrow.

Remember, too, that for the banks this forced growth in their outstanding loan book has been painful. Many of the margins charged on these old loans are now uneconomic for banks, and they are under pressure to rebuild their balance sheets rather than lend more.

According to Julian Callow, economist at Barclays Capital, the changes in loan officer sentiment in the equivalent and much older U.S. survey tend to lead actual changes in lending by about a year and a half.

So expect Europe’s lenders to cut back on lending as soon as they get the chance.

AN ECONOMY DEPENDENT ON ITS BANKS

Europe’s economy still depends in large part on bank lending. In the euro zone, bank credit accounts for about 85 percent of corporate financing — compared with less than half in the United States — with securities issuance taking up the rest. That has put Europe’s corporations, if not its banks, in better shape in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the shadow banking system of loan securitization.

But Europe arguably will be doing some catching up, credit crunch-wise, as its banks get the opportunity to call in loans and start the much needed process of charging more and being choosier.

So what will the impact of tighter credit be on Europe? Since the ECB lending survey is only a bit over five years old, there is not a lot of experience to go on.

However, the U.S. version, the Federal Reserve’s Senior Loan Officer survey, has been around a lot longer, since 1990 in its current form.

A 2002 study by Cara Lown and Donald Morgan of the New York Federal Reserve here found the survey was a good leading indicator for the economy overall.

Besides being a leading indicator for lending itself, tightening standards in the U.S. survey were found to “matter a lot” for economic growth.

It is very reasonable to expect that this relationship will hold in Europe, if not be stronger, given corporate Europe’s tight relationship to their banks.

Look for the impact to develop over the coming few months, especially in the last quarter of the year, as banks are finally able to begin deleveraging by tightening up on loans coming due.

Look too for the impact to allow the ECB to strike a more dovish tone on interest rates.

James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund.

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