ECONOMY

Lenders banking on automation in order to trim costs

Greek bank customers can expect to see a reduction in the number of branches and automatic teller machines in 2012, while at best lenders will simply continue to maintain their existing networks, marking a second year of conservative practices following the expansion boom of the 2003-08 period. Internet banking is also being actively promoted as it carries very low operational costs in comparison to traditional over-the-counter services.

Specifically, it is estimated that the number of bank branches in Greece will shrink in 2012 as a result of closures and mergers, a trend that began to pick up in 2011 after an especially dynamic six-year period earlier in which banks in Greece expanded at over twice the rate of other eurozone countries (25 percent in Greece compared to a 10 percent average in the eurozone).

According to the catalog of bank branches in Greece known as the HEBIC (Hellenic Bank Identification Code), at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 the number of branches operating in the country stood at 4,180, or about 100 less than in 2009.

The number of branches in Greece in 2012 will be significantly influenced by the ongoing merger between Alpha Bank and Eurobank EFG, though management at both institutions have said that while closing down branches is not among their immediate priorities, they will be streamlining where necessary.

Meanwhile, there has also been a decline in the number of ATMs around Greece from 7,624 in 2009 to 7,580 in 2010 and about 7,300 in 2011. Most of the cash machines that have been taken out of service were located inside banks that closed down. Nevertheless, ATMs continue to represent the biggest alternative banking network, as data show that annually, some 45 billion euros is withdrawn from such machines, representing 75 percent of all withdrawals, and a total of around 4.5 billion euros is deposited.

Automatic payment machines, located mostly inside banks as well as in some supermarkets, phone stores or public utility offices, are also being used increasingly, with average annual deposits made in this manner reaching 1.1 billion euros. Data also indicate that some 500 million euros? worth of bills have been paid at Greece?s 1,500 APMs.

As far as Internet banking is concerned, data released by the Hellenic Bank Association at the end of 2010 and early 2011 showed there were 1,929,800 Internet banking users registered in Greece, as opposed to 1,719,800 in 2009, signifying a rise of 12 percent.

The value of cash exchanges, both intra- and inter-bank, rose by 8 percent in a year, from around 18.3 billion euros in the first half of 2009 to around 19.7 billion in the same period of 2010.