Basel proposals bring no comfort to trade finance

Fri Aug 13, 2010 6:19am EDT

* Basel rules eased for derivatives, not trade finance

* Default database presents results of pilot

By Jonathan Lynn

GENEVA, Aug 13 (Reuters) - Recent amendments from the Basel Committee on banking regulation do not appear to meet the concern of practitioners of trade finance that proposed new rules could make the vital loans scarcer and more expensive.

Bankers and lawyers are still deciphering the revisions. But several say they still have their work cut out to convince regulators that the $10 trillion market, the lifeblood of global trade, is much less risky than other forms of lending.

"From what we can tell so far, on the specific trade issue, I don't see that they've made any change at all," Dan Taylor, President of BAFT-IFSA, an international association representing bankers in trade finance, told Reuters.

Banks fear the proposed new rules, known as Basel III, will hit trade finance particularly hard, hurting the 80-90 percent of the $12-13 trillion in world trade that depends on the loans.

Published in December, the rules would impose a leverage ratio on banks requiring them to set aside capital equivalent to the value of off-balance-sheet items.

Many banks hid toxic assets off their balance sheets, a cause of the financial crisis when those assets fell in value as markets weakened. The new rules aim to discourage a repeat.

But documentary letters of credit -- the short-term loans collateralised on cargoes that have formed the bulk of trade finance for centuries -- are also held off balance sheets.

A requirement to fully capitalise such loans instead of providing capital at 10 or 20 percent of their value as at present would make them much less profitable for the banks.

Major players in trade finance include Deutsche Bank (DBKGn.DE), Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS.L) and Citibank (C.N).

CAUGHT IN THE NET

Revisions to the proposals issued at the end of July after consultations did seem to soften the treatment of derivatives, but not of trade finance, bankers and lawyers said.

Practitioners do not believe the Basel committee of central bankers and bank supervisors is targeting trade as such.

"It's more that letters of credit are caught in the net of trying to sweep up everything that is off balance sheet with the leverage ratio rather than something specifically against us," said one trade finance expert.

Many people interviewed did not want to be quoted by name for fear of appearing to lobby the regulators too aggressively.

November's summit of the G20 in Seoul will be largely devoted to the Basel proposals on re-regulation, and there is little appetite now for carve-outs and exceptions.

Trade finance is a low-risk, low-remuneration business, and if profitability falls, the bankers who provide it will have a harder time arguing for funds in their banks' credit committees.

After slumping in late 2008/early 2009, flows of trade finance have largely returned to pre-crisis levels, helped by a $250 billion package from international institutions agreed at the G20 summit in London in April last year.

But exporters in some countries in Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and some small businesses even in rich countries, are still finding it hard to access funds.

They could be locked out altogether if the market contracts again -- unless better capitalised banks in emerging economies spot an opportunity for business as trade rebounds generally.

"Any increase in the cost of financing will eventually be passed on to exporters, which means developing countries," said one trade finance lawyer.

The World Trade Organization, which does not want to be seen as a lobbyist for banks, is not commenting on the latest drafts.

But WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy, fearing renewed disruption to trade finance could derail this year's recovery in trade, brought regulators and trade finance bankers together in May. [ID:nLDE64H20X]

The International Chamber of Commerce, which sets trade finance standards, met regulators in Frankfurt in early June. The chamber is now managing a project to pool data from trade finance banks from 2005 to 2009 to demonstrate just how safe trade finance is. It has just sent results from a pilot with a small number of banks to regulators.

The data look at the rates of default in particular trade finance products, and recovery rates for banks in defaults. It will also examine specific factors in trade products that may reduce the likelihood of a transaction resulting in a default.

"We hope that the data will provide an initial platform for discussion with the regulators on issues relating to trade finance in the Basel framework, including the Basel-III package," project manager Andrew Wilson told Reuters. (For Basel amendments go to link.reuters.com/qut64n ) (Original proposals at link.reuters.com/gux47g )

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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