Painful cure for banks

Strong antibiotics kill bacteria but exhaust the body’s defenses. We are all aware of these side effects, but we still swallow them unquestioningly. Something similar must be happening with the economy, following the stern orders issued by the governor of the Bank of Greece to the heads of the country’s commercial banks to rein in credit at home and abroad and to better evaluate risks. According to sources, Giorgos Provopoulos more or less told the bank chiefs that loans to local households and particularly to businesses in Greece were increasing at a rate of 20 percent a year, while those abroad (to Southeast Europe, for example) rose 40 percent. That is an average expansion rate of almost 30 percent, funded solely by Greek depositors. Yet deposits were increasing by just 12 percent. This means a deficit of about 18 percent, which, under the present circumstances of international banking upheaval as loans from one bank to another decrease, will be hard to meet, even with higher interest rates. The bankers agreed, but warned that cutting funds would bring the already shrinking economy to its knees. If bank credits fall to 15 or 10 percent, it is clear that many businesses will have to reduce production and many more will postpone all investment and expansion plans. Commerce will also slow down, with an attendant reduction in incomes and, worst of all, rising unemployment. Add to that a rise in interest rates that will make repayment of consumer and household loans more difficult, then the cure will be painful indeed. On the other hand, it is the duty of the Bank of Greece, which is independent of the state, to safeguard the current good health of the Greek banking system and protect people’s deposits, which amount to over 220 billion euros, that is, almost the size of the country’s gross domestic product. Greek banks’ dependence on international money markets and capital markets is limited, so reining in expansion should save them, given the availability of the deposits by Greeks who trust them.