ECONOMY

Banks reject charges of abuses and monopoly

Greek banks have been criticized for high loan and commission rates, excessive profits and many instances of abusive behavior against consumers for some time. Some go as far as as to accuse them of monopolistic practices. For their part, bankers react angrily to such charges, particularly as regard monopolistic tendencies.. They recognize that dubious practices, such as penalties for borrowers who pay back their loans early, still exist but argue that the Hellenic Bank Association is making an earnest effort to gradually eliminate them. They also recognize that in some loan categories, interest rates remain considerably higher than elsewhere in Europe but argue that this is explained by specific factors. They stress that charges of collusion among banks to harmonize rates are out of place when spreads are narrowing from month to month, particularly as regard mortgage loans. In consumer loans, rates remain considerably higher but bankers note that this particular market segment was only liberalized three years ago and there are no effective mechanisms for monitoring borrowing behavior, which increases the risk and costs for banks. They further point out that consumers, citing the protection of personal data, can successfully ask that a past loan not be included in the Tiresias credit monitoring system. Banks will argue that the higher rates are also due to the small size of the Greek market, the country’s low credit rating, their higher operational costs and the low degree of maturity of the local market. They say that costs are also augmented by the country’s geographical peculiarities which force them to maintain branches in isolated locations and on islands. As regard the charges of excessive profits, bankers will say that the high profitability of recent years is largely due to non-operational factors, as capital gains from the sale of holdings (such as National Bank’s sale of the Atlantic Bank in the USA) and other assets. They say that it is such extraordinary income that makes the difference when operational income has been rising on a par with loan growth. Finally, they point out that the total number of banks in Greece is about 60, whether large, small, cooperative or foreign.