Banks help ease pain from global crisis, despite faults

Bankers like to point out, citing surveys, that more than 80 percent of Greeks are satisfied with their bank. Yet, by reading the local press and listening to various politicians of different political stripes talk about credit institutions you can easily reach the conclusion banks must be responsible for many of the woes of the Greek economy. But when you look at the facts, you see that Greek banks have not caused any problems to the macroeconomy unlike their peers in the US, UK and elsewhere. By accumulating toxic assets, the latter found themselves in dire straits, prompting their governments to step in and save them from collapse. In doing so, they actually did a favor to the real economy which may have been unable to escape another Great Depression without the national rescue plans. In the process of bailing out the banks, these countries ended up expanding government debt. As a senior economist working for Alpha Bank points out, the UK’s public debt may double in three years and this is largely due to British banks. Greek banks did not have large quantities of toxic assets at the onset of the crisis in the summer of 2007, so there was no need to tackle the problem. Perhaps they were lucky because they were busy expanding in Southeast Europe and giving out as many loans as possible to local households and companies. Of course, some or all local banks may be accused of reckless lending to individuals, professionals and firms, which did not meet the proper screening criteria in Greece and abroad. It is known that some banks aggressively marketed loans in euros to households in the Balkans and elsewhere. This lax lending has undoubtedly contributed to the deterioration in the quality of their loan portfolio and forced them to increase their provisions for bad loans, hurting their profitability and capital base, but it has been kept at manageable levels. In other words, it cannot compare to the damage toxic assets have done to other banks’ balance sheets abroad. Still, Greek society, politicians and a good portion of the press have in banks long found a convenient villain for the economy’s woes. It is no coincidence that most of them praise or show indifference to state aid plans to help companies and individuals in various sectors although history teaches a portion will not go to the needy and a bigger portion will end up burdening the Greek taxpayer further on down the road. All of the above criticized the state’s rescue plan for local banks last fall, even though they later lashed out against those bankers who were hesitating to participate in the plan. Still, this must be the only rescue plan from which the state earns money, since it charged banks a fee for the state bonds it provided so they can use them as collateral to borrow funds cheaply from the European Central Bank. It also charged a 10 percent rate for the 5-year bonds it gave banks to boost their regulatory capital in exchange for preference shares. Very soon, several of the large banks will be singled out for making huge amounts of money on the Greek government bonds they bought in the first few months of the year. It was the time when a number of foreign analysts and media were questioning the country’s ability to borrow the funds needed to roll over maturing debt and finance the budget gap. This is because the sizable revenues and capital gains from the bonds is expected to help boost banks’ profitability and capital adequacy ratios in the second quarter of the year compared to the first. Some may argue that this was the reward for a well calculated move which benefited both the banks and the state. By generating demand for Greek bonds, local banks helped the state find the money it needed at the time and paved the way for the return of Greek spreads over German Bunds to more reasonable levels. Of course, Greek banks are no saints. Many of their employees are not adequately trained and this creates friction with their clients. Also, some executives in senior- and middle-management positions are not adequately qualified for their positions. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to accuse banks for all the woes of Greek businesses and households during this crisis. It is also wrong to single them out for profiting from the purchases of Greek state bonds when the country needed the funds the most. Whatever their mistakes – and they have made plenty over the years – banks have contributed to Greece’s less painful suffering of the global economic crisis so far.