ECONOMY

High loan demand

The demand for mortgages and consumer loans continues to be robust. This is due both to the low cost of money – since low interest rates are here to stay – and to households’ new needs. The banks declare themselves optimistic about their earnings from housing and consumer loans and concentrate their efforts in these two areas. They believe that there is still a lot of room for offering more credit to individuals. And, indeed, for those able to afford repayment, taking out a loan is an attractive option. Bank executives say that demand for mortgages will remain high in the coming years, despite the high percentage of home ownership. As a percentage of the country’s gross domestic product, indebtedness in this particular type of loan is still far behind the European Union average. The housing loan market is not confined to loans given to acquire one’s first home, but extends to home refurbishment and improvements. As living standards continue to improve, many loans will be given in order to refurbish old houses in Athens and the provinces. This is a potentially lucrative market for banks. New customers will also be drawn in a few years’ time from the numerous economic migrants. The same holds, more or less, for consumer loans and credit cards. The expansion of consumer credit may have slowed down to 35 percent in 2002 compared to 42 percent in 2001, but this is still a pretty high rate. The higher credit expansion rates in 2000 and 2001 can be explained by the fact that interest rates were dropping fast during those two years, thereby attracting customers. Bankers also point out that the consumer credit market is not yet liberalized in Greece; it still operates under the constraint of the maximum allowable consumer loan of 1 million drachmas (now 2,934.70 euros). A liberalization, which is not far away, is certain to boost the market. The banks’ moves are indicative of their expectations in this regard: They are building new, alternative credit networks, in the shape of either small neighborhood outlets or roving salesmen that make house calls to offer housing and consumer loans, as well as credit cards. Institutional changes, such as the creation of a debtors’ database accessible by all banks, will improve the market’s effectiveness and provide a further boost to credit expansion. Already banks, on the basis of the data available to them about a client’s income, phone «good clients» to offer them extra loans at no extra cost. On the other hand, things do not look brilliant for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The numerous data to be checked, including tax payments, in order to provide a loan, are a barrier to credit expansion. A recent survey showed that 40 percent of SMEs have never taken a loan nor do they wish to do so currently or in the next two years, at least. The region is also famous for its kiwi fruit production, which took off eight years ago and has since then become very profitable.