* Banks can start repaying LTRO cash at end of Jan
* BNP Paribas, Commerzbank, Santander set to lead repayment
* Other banks could follow as a "show of strength"
* Some 80-300 bln euros seen repaid early this year -analysts
By Steve Slater
LONDON, Jan 15 BNP Paribas, Commerzbank and Santander are among a growing number of banks wanting to repay emergency loans to the European Central Bank to distinguish themselves from weaker rivals.
Some 200 billion euros or more is expected to be paid back by European banks in the next few months, bankers and analysts estimate, out of 1 trillion euros doled last year to ease a funding crisis.
Banks can keep the loans for three years, but many see the so-called LTRO loans as insurance they no longer need and they can reduce their funding costs by repaying early.
Early repayment would be a badge of honour for banks anxious to impress investors and rating agencies and distance themselves from more cash-strapped rivals.
"We believe that big names could exit from the LTRO to send a strong message to the market of their ability to get funding in the market, rather than from the ECB," said Giuseppe Maraffino, fixed income strategist at Barclays in London.
Most big banks are fine in terms of liquidity and some only borrowed for precautionary reasons, he said.
The ECB's two LTROs, longer term refinancing operations, were applauded for providing lifelines for Spanish and Italian banks after their funding costs spiked.
Banks are allowed to start returning some or all of the cash in weekly installments from Jan. 30 for the first 489 billion euros and from Feb. 27 for the remaining 529 billion.
Germany's Commerzbank is the only bank to have publicly disclosed its plans to pay back the 10 billion euros it took in the first tranche this quarter.
France's BNP Paribas, Societe Generale and Credit Agricole, Germany's Deutsche Bank are all considering paying some of their cash back, industry sources and analysts have said.
They say Spain's Santander, BBVA and Caixabank , Britain's HSBC, Lloyds, RBS and Barclays and Italy's Intesa Sanpaolo and Unicredit are also thinking about it.
Smaller banks are less able or willing to pay back, however. More than 800 tapped the ECB for cash.
Some may try to match Sabadell, Spain's fifth-biggest lender, which plans to pay back up to a fifth of the 24 billion euros it took as a "symbolic sum", a source told Reuters.
Although policymakers are keen for banks to pay back early to avoid a huge repayment hump in 2015, there is a risk it could highlight a two-tier market, and see a stigma return to banks who are unable to pay back, bankers said.
200 BLN EUROS REPAID...OR MORE?
Thirteen of 25 money market traders polled by Reuters last week predicted banks would repay at least 100 billion euros of cash quickly, including four traders who expected more than 200 billion to be paid back.
James Longsdon, co-head of EMEA financial institutions at Fitch ratings agency, said up to a third of the loans could be repaid this year.
Analysts at Barclays expect about 200 billion euros will be paid back by June with French banks accounting for 80 billion euros, Spanish banks 30 billion, German banks 25 billion and Belgian banks 15 billion. Italian banks could repay 40 billion euros, although they may wait until after elections in late February to do so, Barclays said.
Banks generally borrowed cash for three reasons: liquidity insurance in case the euro zone crisis worsened; for a "carry trade" to profit from buying higher yielding government bonds; or to fund their loan book if they were struggling to access cheap funding.
"The banks that pay it back are more likely to be those that borrowed the money as an insurance policy against a eurozone breakup now that risk has reduced," said Andrew Lim, analyst at Espirito Santo.
Spanish and Italian banks tapped the lion's share of the funding, estimated at around 260 billion euros each, and only the major banks in those countries are expected to go for early partial repayment.
Spain's BBVA, Caixabank and Sabadell and Italy's UniCredit, plus Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas have sold bonds this year, which could help their plans. SocGen has followed French peers in selling floating-rate debt, which bankers said was a cheaper replacement for the LTRO loans.
But funding is still costly for smaller banks and overall issuance has not been remarkable. Europe's banks had raised $28 billion from unsecured debt up to Jan. 14, compared to $46 billion a year ago and well down from the levels seen in 2010 and 2011, according to Thomson Reuters data.
Bankers say even if 200 billion euros were repaid it would not cut the amount of spare funding in the banking system enough to push up borrowing costs on open markets.
Reuters calculations show there is about 600 billion euros of "excess liquidity" sitting at euro zone banks, and analysts say money market rates would only react if it dropped below 200 billion.
While the ECB's action plan has been seen as a success in guaranteeing no bank runs out of money, it has been less efficient at boosting lending to companies and other domestic borrowers, particularly in stressed economies such as Spain and Italy.