Greek banks to expand to ‘virgin’ SE Europe market

EU entry prospects for Romania and Bulgaria and their economies’ particularly high growth rates seem to be drawing Greek capital like magnets. A number of big Greek enterprises have their eyes firmly fixed on the Balkans for their expansion now, with the banks first in line. Growth prospects are indeed high, and all the data show that 2005 will be the year to confirm more than ever the interest of investors in these countries: mostly in Bulgaria and Romania (almost certain to be admitted to the EU in 2007), and then Serbia-Montenegro, Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Southeastern European states, Greece aside, have a total population of 46 million people, which means that Greek companies can use investment penetration to gradually reap the benefits of a large consumer market beyond the country’s borders. Growth rates in most SE European countries are steady at 4 to 5, and even 6, percent annually, indicating that income will keep growing and with it consumer needs and purchase demand. There will continue to be great scope for growth for a long time to come. Investments therefore have mid- to long-term prospects, for 15 to 20 years, and the yield they promise is very important. Financial analysts note that, based on end-of-2003 data, income per capita in the Balkans was $2,546 when in Greece it was $16,347; this massive difference illustrates the scope for foreign investors and Greek banks in particular. The total gross domestic product of SE Europe, excepting Greece, is just 84 billion euros, which is 63 percent of Greece’s GDP of 153 billion euros. GDP per capita in the Balkans comes to only 30 percent of the average of the 25 EU states. In this sense, these markets could be still considered virgin. The credit sector in the Balkan states remains at much lower developmental levels compared with the EU. Average bank assets stand at just 39 percent of GDP, when in Greece it is 140 percent and in the eurozone 260 percent. Deposits amount to 76 percent of GDP in Greece, but are as low as 35 percent in Bulgaria, 22 percent in Romania, 41 percent in Albania and 15 percent in Serbia-Montenegro. Similarly, lending in Greece is at 66 percent of GDP but only at 25 percent in Bulgaria, 13 percent in Romania, 15 percent in Serbia and 7 percent in Albania. Specifically, loans to private clients (i.e. mortgage and consumer loans) in Greece represent 26 percent of GDP, while in Bulgaria they equal just 7 percent, in Romania 4 percent, in Albania 3 percent and in Serbia-Montenegro 2.6 percent. Retail banking obviously has immense scope for years from now. In Bulgaria in particular, the country with the most developed market in banking penetration, there are just nine bank branches per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 30 in Greece and an average of 50 in the EU. All this shows why Greek banks, more than any other big enterprise, have invested considerable amounts of money and human resources in neighboring countries, and why, above all, they will continue and speed up investment and expansion in these new markets. This year will doubtlessly make this trend more obvious, bank officials in Athens say.