GENEVA (Reuters) - Leading banks are clubbing together to persuade regulators to ease capital requirements on trade finance, a key element for global economic recovery, a World Trade Organisation expert said on Thursday.
Trade finance was a major victim of the 2008 credit crunch, but now the WTO and banks active in the sector fear that a tougher approach to banking regulation since the crisis could stymie efforts to revive the market.
Regulators grouped in the Financial Stability Board continue to worry about the fragility of the recovery and its impact on bank balance sheets.
Marc Auboin, the WTO’s trade finance expert, told Reuters that massive public-sector intervention following a $250 billion (153.3 million pounds) package agreed at a G20 summit in April last year had stabilised the market for trade credit but many problems remained.
About 80-90 percent of global commerce is financed by mostly short-term lending, and the smooth functioning of the market is essential if trade and the world economy are to recover.
Official data on trade finance are scarce, but there is now a flurry of academic research into the workings of the market.
Latest studies suggest 10-30 percent of last year’s drop in world trade was due to a lack of finance, with the rest reflecting factors such as a slump in demand, Auboin said.
The WTO estimates that world trade contracted by more than 10 percent last year, the biggest fall since World War Two.
One difficulty in reviving the market is that regulators have imposed tougher capital requirements on the instruments than many bankers believe are justified, said Auboin, speaking in an individual capacity.
“The thinking among regulators is that professional associations of bankers must... provide clear evidence that trade finance is safer... than other forms of credit,” he said.
Trade instruments such as letters of credit are among the simplest forms of finance, dating back hundreds of years. They are also among the safest, as they are secured on the goods being exported and the parties generally know each other.
The Basel rules for bank capital, which increase requirements with the length of a loan, set a one-year floor for all lending including trade finance.
Most trade credit deals run for much less, so banks are being asked to tie up expensive capital unnecessarily, deterring them from lending to fund imports and exports.
Last April’s G20 package assumed that trade finance could be rolled over every six months — with deals liquidating and funds available for new loans. In practice many trade finance deals run for only 55 days, Auboin said.
Although national regulators have some discretion to waive this minimum, only the Financial Service Authority has done so, he said.
To persuade regulators that trade finance is indeed less risky than other forms of credit, 20 leading banks have decided to provide confidential information on individual deals to the International Chamber of Commerce. Its banking commission will aggregate the data in an international trade finance loan default registry, Auboin said.
It will publish the first findings in Beijing in April.
At the height of the crisis in late 2008 and early 2009, the cost of trade finance rocketed to 250-600 basis points over the interbank rates that banks pay each other for funds, from 15 points before the crunch.
Those prices reflected a scarcity of credit as big international banks withdrew from the market.
State-run or state-linked export credit agencies stepped in to fill the gap under the G20 package, and some big emerging countries also had funds available locally to replace the banks. Brazil for instance is now paying a spread over interbank rates of 50-70 basis points, and China is paying 50-125 points.
“Now prices for trade credit are higher than pre-crisis levels. This was expected, a repricing of risk,” Auboin said.
But there is now a need to target trade finance at small and medium-sized enterprises, especially in Africa, Central America, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and low-income countries in East Asia, he said.
Otherwise companies such as T-shirt makers in Cambodia or computer chip producers in Costa Rica risk being shut out of the world market, and the globalisation that has powered the world economy in recent decades will suffer a setback.
And although the market is generally safe, more importers are now required to insure credit, currently adding some two percentage points to the cost of a deal.
(A recent paper by Auboin is at r.reuters.com/tas53h)
editing by Paul Taylor