FRANKFURT Lending to euro zone households and companies contracted for the 28th month in a row in August, though at a slower pace, putting a keener spotlight on European Central Bank efforts to get credit flowing again.
Euro zone banks, particularly in the crisis-stricken countries, have tightened up on lending as they adapt to tougher capital requirements and undergo health checks, while companies are holding back on investments, unsure of the future.
The euro zone economy ground to a halt in the second quarter and with inflation in what ECB President Mario Draghi has called the "danger zone" below 1 percent for almost a year now, the ECB saw the need to add new stimulus steps in June and September.
The ECB has now started to offer banks four-year loans at ultra-cheap rates and plans to buy asset-backed securities and covered bonds from October to lighten the weight on banks' balance sheets and entice them to lend.
But economists in a Reuters poll are skeptical about whether the plan will work, saying bank lending to private euro zone businesses needed to grow at a 3-percent annual rate on a sustained basis to stir inflation.
August lending rates are nowhere near such levels.
In August, loans to the private sector continued to fall, down 1.5 percent from the same month a year earlier after a contraction of 1.6 percent in July, ECB data showed on Thursday. Private sector loans have not grown since April 2012.
"It remains questionable as to how much all the liquidity measures announced by the ECB will encourage banks to lift their lending," IHS Global Insight economist Howard Archer said.
"...it is also questionable how much businesses' demand for credit will pick up while the economic and political outlook looks so uncertain," he said.
WEAK LENDING IN IRELAND
Draghi told Lithuanian business daily Verslo Zinios in an interview published on Thursday a continued weakness in credit growth was likely to curb the euro zone recovery.
Euro zone companies rely mainly on bank funding rather than capital markets, which is why it is so crucial to fix lingering problems in the sector.
For that purpose, the ECB is putting the bloc's top banks through a thorough review of their balance sheets to weed out bad loans, update collateral valuations and adjust capital.
The picture varies across the euro zone. While lending to companies in Ireland fell at an annual rate of 11.8 percent in August - the fastest decline in three years - and 8.8 percent in Spain, it rose in Finland, Germany and France.
Euro zone M3 money supply - a more general measure of cash in the economy - grew at an annual pace of 2.0 percent in August, up from 1.8 percent in July.
(Editing by Louise Ireland/Ruth Pitchford)