March 29, 2016 / 11:10 AM / 3 years ago

INSIGHT-For banks, ECB policy experiment opens north-south divide

* German banks unlikely to take advantage of new ECB loan scheme

* Southern European banks seen as main beneficiaries

* Warning loans may go to lower-quality lenders

* Banks reluctant to pass on negative rates

By Arno Schuetze and Jesús Aguado

FRANKFURT/MADRID March 29 (Reuters) - As the European Central Bank moves into an unfamiliar world of negative interest rates and incentives to encourage banks to make loans to businesses and consumers, a north-south divide is opening up between euro zone lenders.

In the north, anaemic demand for loans and a financial system already flush with cash mean banks see mostly costs. They must pay the ECB to deposit funds overnight and they have little need for the easy money on offer.

In the south, lenders are keen to take advantage of the loans programme and many are set to get an instant boost to their profit margins when it takes effect in June.

Under the ECB scheme, four-year loans will be offered at an interest rate of zero. Banks lending on more than a prescribed amount of that money to households and companies will get a reduction worth up to the deposit rate - in other words they will be paid to borrow.

The north-south split highlights the challenges of a one-size fits all monetary policy for 19 nations.

The ECB can point to data showing lending in the euro zone is rising at its fastest pace since 2011 to justify its policies. But banks in the likes of Germany say they are penalised by measures that only bring benefits to their counterparts in southern Europe, and warn they could cause cheap money to flow to the wrong parts of the economy.

An ECB spokesperson said the programme’s goal was to spur bank lending into the real economy. “It is up to individual banks across the euro area to decide whether to participate.”

THE ALPS DIVIDE

Commerzbank’s chief financial officer Stephan Engels said earlier this month that no bank “north of the Alps” would take the ECB’s money, a position exemplified by the experiences of Gemany’s fifth biggest bank HypoVereinsbank (HVB) and Spain’s Banco de Sabadell.

At Munich-based HVB, chief financial officer Francesco Giordano said the bank was taking a direct hit from the ECB’s negative deposit rate, first introduced in 2014 and cut further below zero this month, because it adds to the cost of cash management - the business of looking after money the bank and its clients need to access easily.

HVB’s view mirrors banks across Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, where loan demand has been largely flat for the past five years because firms see only limited scope for investment given global risks to the economy and weak growth at home.

HVB’s deposit base grew 7 percent last year, outstripping the 3.5 percent growth in its loan book. That means the bank sees little reason to take part in the ECB’s programme, known as TLTRO2. At the same time, HVB is feeling the full force of negative rates because it has little choice but to park its surplus funds with the central bank.

“Bottom line, the -0.4 percent rate is a direct loss for us,” Chief Financial Officer Giordano told Reuters.

“In markets like Germany, loan demand has been very weak. It is not a game changer for German banks as they had a good liquidity position to start with.”

In Spain, the ECB’s loan programme is getting a more positive response.

While banks are not expected to sign up for billions of euros of new loans right away, credit demand is growing as Spain recovers from the worst of the euro zone debt crisis, a crisis that left Germany largely unscathed.

The Spanish economy is expanding at its fastest rate since before 2008 - last year GDP grew 3.2 percent - and lenders are looking to roll over existing loans from the ECB into loans at new, more preferential rates.

Banco de Sabadell SA, based just outside of Barcelona, saw its total gross lending to clients grow 21 percent during 2015.

“New loans are beginning to pick-up. We expect credit for SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises) to grow between 3 and 4 percent on our balance sheet this year,” said Albert Coll, the bank’s international policy and market relations director.

He estimates his bank could borrow as much as 21 billion euros ($23.62 billion) through the ECB programme, though it expects to take a much smaller amount.

For now, Coll says Sabadell plans to roll over around 5.5 billion euros worth of existing loans from the ECB on to this new scheme, a move that would shave off around 30 million euros from their borrowing costs.

WRONG BANKS

The ECB will be able to deploy as much as 1.6 trillion euros worth of funds through its four-year loan scheme. Analysts at Morgan Stanley estimate around 100 billion to 200 billion euros of that will be drawn, mainly by banks in southern Europe.

HVB’s Gioardano cautioned though that the ECB’s move may not incentivise the best-placed banks to expand credit. “The downside may be that not only good but also bad banks are getting a lot of liquidity,” he said.

Bankers agree that lenders in southern Europe - those in Spain, Italy and Portugal in particular - are the clear winners from the programme, particularly the smaller lenders in those countries.

JPMorgan forecasts that Spanish and Italian banks will see their pre-tax profits boosted by an average of 4 percent as a results of the ECB’s latest changes to its policies.

Getting access to more, rate-free loans from the central bank has already eased concerns about the ability of Italian banks to fund themselves. Italian bank shares have been weighed down by worries about the 360 billion euros worth of bad loans in their system

The ECB’s push deeper into negative rates is controversial too. Euro zone lenders are left with a choice of paying to store money at the ECB or stashing the money as physical cash and paying for security, insurance and vault space.

HVB and Sabadell say for now they have little choice but to continue keeping money at the central bank given those expenses.

Other financial firms though are looking at alternatives.

Munich Re said last week it was experimenting by storing a two-digit million euro amount of cash in its vaults, saying the move reflected how “serious” the problem of negative rates is.

Lenders are also reluctant to pass on much of the cost of holding deposits at the ECB to customers. HVB and Sabadell say they will not pass on negative rates to their clients.

In Germany, though, some customers are not taking chances, with savings banks reporting a jump in demand for safety deposit boxes. ($1 = 0.8890 euros) (Reporting by Arno Schuetze and Jesus Aguado; Writing by Rachel Armstrong; editing Janet McBride)

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