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Weak demand for loans threatens ECB grief

AFP · 11 Dec 2014, 08:29

Published: 11 Dec 2014 08:29 GMT+01:00

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By pumping more cash into the financial system, the Frankfurt-based central bank aims to boost the eurozone economy via private-sector loans and, in turn, halt a stubborn drop in inflation.

The ECB unveiled a lending programme called the Targeted Long-Term Refinancing Operations (TLTRO) in June, announcing eight rounds of borrowing to banks until 2016.

Under the first round in September, it said it had lent €82.6 billion to 255 banks, below the forecasts of analysts who had pencilled in an uptake of at least 100 billion euros.

"It's very, very difficult to estimate precisely what takeup of the TLTRO will be," ECB president Mario Draghi told reporters after last week's decision-making governing council

Several analysts estimated an uptake this time around of about €150 billion. The outcome will be announced at 1015 GMT.

The new measure is different from the steps the ECB took at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 to boost liquidity.

At that time, banks were deemed to be not lending enough to the small- and medium-sized companies that form the backbone of the eurozone economy.

This time, the ECB is instead targeting loans to encourage banks to lend the money on to businesses.

Banks unable to prove they have increased lending to firms and households will have to repay the loans early after two years.

'Liquidity not the problem' 

Banks among the 18 countries that share the euro have the possibility to borrow from a pot of around €400 billion in the two rounds of lending in 2014.

The central bank has an overall target of boosting the size of its balance sheet by €1 trillion.

If the latest TLTRO fails to make much headway towards that goal, Draghi could face greater pressure to take more action.

The ECB has already cut its interest rates to an all-time low and unveiled asset purchase programmes (asset-backed securities and covered bonds) to pump liquidity into the financial system.

It has also hinted at more radical action in the form of quantitative easing (QE), as used by central banks in the US and UK to stimulate their sluggish economies.

QE is the large-scale purchase of government bonds and other securities and has many critics in Europe, not least the German central bank or Bundesbank, because it is felt that it takes the ECB outside its remit and is effectively a licence to print money to get governments out of debt.

"A low figure, say below €150 billion, would make the prospect of actual sovereign bond QE in early 2015 look even more probable," analysts from ING bank and insurance group said in a note.

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The loans under the TLTRO, which run until September 2018, are offered at a fixed rate of 0.15 percent, slightly above the ECB's key interest rate which is currently at 0.05 percent.

But several analysts indicated that, in a fragile eurozone economy, companies' main concern was not asking for credit.

Johannes Gareis, an analyst from Natixis, said he had doubts about whether the lending programme really made a difference to companies' financing.

"Liquidity is not the banks' problem; there's liquidity galore. What counts is the solvency of borrowers," he said.

The question is "are they going to play the game?" he added.

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