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Insight: EU banks shrink; Irish farmers, Qatari bosses flinch

PLEASE HOLD - To match Insight BANKS/EUROPE-SHRINKING/
PLEASE HOLD - To match Insight BANKS/EUROPE-SHRINKING/

By Steve Slater

LONDON (Reuters) - From his idyllic farm in Ireland's lush Wicklow Hills, Colin Hadden hatched a plan to supply his lean, grass-fed specialty lamb to some of Dublin's finest restaurants.

Over the last two years, his small business boomed, taking on 15 people and opening a butcher shop and food hall. That was before his bank halved his overdraft facility to 50,000 euros.

"They are literally making life impossible," said Hadden, who has been forced to ask suppliers for loans and provide credit to his restaurant customers, who are also suffering as EU banks shrink and the debt crisis bites.

"They are acting as debt collectors rather than banks. They are squeezing the life out of my business," Hadden told Reuters.

Hadden thinks his business, Ballyshonog Farm Foods, will survive the next year but is less confident about the future. "If you don't have credit you don't have a business," he said.

The pattern of banks withdrawing lines of credit, or "deleveraging" in banking terms, is being repeated across Ireland and Europe as well as further afield.

And it's not just the small firms that are scrambling.

Ballyshonog's hill farming may be a far cry from ship building in the yards of Denmark or pumping gas in the deserts of Qatar but small businesses and industrial conglomerates alike are all feeling the pain as European banks cut off loans.

Danish shipping group Torm is in talks to avert takeover as it struggles to reschedule $1.8 billion of bank debt.

One week before Christmas a $10-billion Qatari gas project had to find new lenders after big French banks that have worked with Qatar for years turned their backs on the deal.

Such is the reality of a huge pullback around the world in lending by Europe's banks in reaction to the debt crisis.

Deleveraging is wrenching the corporate world, threatening auto, aviation and shipping industries, hurting trade and project finance, and shaking up the financing landscape.

LENDING BINGE

The crisis has revealed the extent of the banks' decade-long lending binge and exposed eye-watering levels of debt, as well as a startlingly creaky financial system.

As a result, regulators are now insisting on tougher rules and have demanded that banks hold more capital to protect their balance sheets if things get worse.

The new rules have forced lenders to re-assess their clients more rigorously and either tear up lending agreements completely or attach higher costs to loans and funding.

Europe's banks are preparing to ditch up to 3 trillion euros of loans in the next couple of years as they "deleverage" their balance sheets, roughly 5-7 percent of those banks' assets.

As a result businesses must pay more to borrow money, leaving some firms scrambling to stay afloat and increasing the cost of their goods to consumers.

This is hitting Europe's economy hard, but may also derail growth in Asia and recovery in the United States.

"At this point it looks like being very disruptive in the short term ... the credit squeeze could be quite violent," said Nicolas Veron, a senior fellow at Brussels think-tank Bruegel.

That squeeze means banks will retrench to their home markets and fewer, safer clients at the expense of global trade. But it also marks an opportunity for Japanese, U.S., Canadian and Asia-focused banks to profit by picking up the slack.

FRENCH RETREAT

Those banks in worst trouble have been scaling back lending for the last three years.

Troubled Royal Bank of Scotland has shed 600 billion pounds of assets and scaled back its investment bank after over-ambitious acquisitions left it close to collapse.

The retreat from lending was accelerated by France's big banks -- some of whom had been the most aggressive lenders.

In the past six months BNP Paribas and Societe Generale have scaled back many loan deals, disappointing those trying to nurture or expand their business out of recession, or seeking to tap into Asian growth.

In order to cut the demands on them to hold more capital, these banks are cutting their risk-weighted assets -- a measure of their real-world exposure to potential losses.

BNP and SocGen, Deutsche Bank and Barclays, and Credit Suisse and UBS have all said they plan to shed tens of billions of euros of assets to deal with the financial chaos, and most of their peers are on a similar path.

"Banks are retrenching in terms of where they are writing business and where they are sourcing their funds," said James Longsdon, co-head of EMEA financial institutions at credit ratings agency Fitch.

He estimated European banks had shrunk their risk-weighted assets by 2-3 percent last year. "That could certainly accelerate," he said.

With no clear resolution in sight for the euro zone sovereign debt crisis, and a record 725 billion euros of debt due to mature this year, Europe's banks are likely to keep a strict risk-free hold-down on funding requests.

Big banks must also meet tougher regulations from the European Banking Authority by the end of June.

The EBA wants banks to hold a minimum 9 percent in core capital, a measure of a bank's financial strength which consists mainly of common stock and retained earnings. But with an eye on the murky economic weather, investors want banks to stash more protective capital than is strictly required.

If Europe's top banks were to aim for core capital of 10 percent, they would need to raise 180 billion euros, or cut their risk-weighted assets by 1.5 trillion euros, according to Reuters estimates. Based on an average risk-weighting of 50 percent per bank, that would mean 3 trillion euros being cut.

Lenders have several options at their disposal, including raising equity, cutting dividends or pay, or selling assets.

RBS this week sold its aircraft leasing business for $7.3 billion to Japan's Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group and has also offloaded a $6 billion portfolio of project finance loans to Mitsubishi UFJ.

Many assets are proving hard to dispose of in an environment where entrepreneurs are loathe to invest. Banks cannot afford to sell at a loss so most are taking the option of shedding loans.

"The low hanging fruit has been plucked, now it's the harder stuff," said one senior loans banker, explaining that banks are now cutting the number of firms they will lend to, or scaling back on loans, even to firms they have worked with for years.

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For a graphic on deleveraging: http://r.reuters.com/wag55s

Graphics package on EU banks: http://link.reuters.com/qux33s

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EVERYBODY HURTS

Big French banks have in the past been known for bankrolling project financing in the Middle East. But in late 2011 they were not among the more than 20 firms who provided a $7.2 billion loan for Qatar Petroleum's Barzan gas project.

A warning came in August that year when BNP and Commerzbank refused to join 10 banks providing a $12-billion loan to SABMiller, despite having a relationship with one of the world's leading brewers, which operates on six continents.

More recently, Qatar Airways failed to attract its usual European bankers to finance its purchase of two Boeing aircraft. HSBC stepped in to complete its first financing deal with the airline for five years.

Projects backed by wealthy Qatar or loans for investment grade companies are finding other banks willing to step in, keen to get a foothold with a potentially lucrative client for when economic times improve.

But it will be increasingly hard for less stellar borrowers.

"Where a corporate has had a rocky couple of years and the outlook still isn't that strong, those guys could struggle to get refinancing," one banker in the Middle East said.

Banks are most keen to cut loose from projects denominated in U.S. dollars, which have become much more expensive for them to fund after American money market funds alarmed by the growing European debt crisis severely cut back their lending.

This has serious implications for areas such as trade and project finance and aviation and shipping, where European banks like Deutsche Bank, BNP, UniCredit, Credit Agricole, Commerzbank, ING and SocGen rank among the top lenders, according to Thomson Reuters data.

There are also worries about the knock-on impact of the banks shrinking their lending on other industries.

Some banks could quit auto financing completely. With three-quarters of EU car sales dependent on bank credit, that could leave carmakers needing to plug the funding gap themselves or prepare for lower sales, analysts warn.

Indeed, Morgan Stanley analysts estimate auto demand suffers badly in deleveraging markets, with demand for cars taking at least 5-7 years to recover from pre-crisis levels.

ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE

The lending void left by European banks will not stay empty for long, however. Stronger global banks and local lenders are already stepping up to take advantage of the opportunity to grab market share and set advantageous lending rates.

Data from Thomson Reuters LPC shows seismic shifts in the ranks of global loan providers already.

Japan's megabanks on average have already trebled their lending in 2011 as they sought growth outside a stagnant domestic market and benefited from domestic economic conditions to fund themselves relatively cheaply.

Mizuho Financial Group jumped to fifth spot from 11th in the global loans table and was joined by SMFG and Mitsubishi UFJ in the top ten.

Lending by U.S. banks also jumped, and the top three spots were filled by JP Morgan, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Citigroup.

All the European banks in the top 20 slipped down the rankings, with the exception of Asia-focused HSBC.

Richard Meddings, finance director of Standard Chartered, told Reuters last month he expected to win market share and reprice business at a higher level as a result of aggressive deleveraging by Western banks.

But the stronger banks will be choosy and deploy capital where it gets them a new area or client, and bosses want to see hard evidence it will create a lucrative new relationship.

Japanese banks stepped in to lend to Russia's Gazprom when French lenders recently retreated, bankers said. Japan is dependent on Russian LNG exports and has an eye on potential projects in Russia's Pacific regions where project financing may be needed.

Indian, Chinese and Korean banks are not aggressively chasing deals, but are stepping in on loans where they have a trading link to the company or country.

Others capital providers could also step in, such as private equity firms which are cash-rich and have more than $700 billion to deploy, according to data provider Preqin.

Companies are also expected to turn more to bond markets for their cash, shifting closer to the U.S. market model where companies rely more on raising debt and less on bank loans.

Demonstrating the search for alternatives, Italian power company Edipower said two days before Christmas that it would go to its shareholders to refinance a 1 billion euro loan, after failing to renew the loan with banks on attractive terms.

EIGHT YEARS OF PAIN?

How widespread the impact of deleveraging on the recovery of the industrialized world will be, and how long it will last, draws contrasting views.

Politicians are talking tough about limiting the pain of emerging from recession by telling banks to slow the process of deleveraging, but their influence may just limit how far banks reduce domestic lending and not their overseas retreat.

Germany's Commerzbank has already said it will only lend in its home market and Poland.

Politicians and governments will also be caught in the squeeze, as banks sell their sovereign debt, hardly helping confidence in the euro zone's economic stability.

Banks cut their net exposure to the sovereign debt of Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain by 50 billion euros in the first nine months of last year, according to bank disclosures.

And there are warnings that the process has only just begun and will be more severe than past credit crunches -- such as in the United States, Sweden, Hong Kong and Japan -- which have typically led to a 6-7 year decline in lending.

The problem for Europe is that banks, governments and households are all cutting back at the same time, after a jump in public and private indebtedness since the mid-1980s.

"It will be long and drawn out ... it looks like being an eight year process at least," said Andrew Lim, analyst at Espirito Santo.

(Additional reporting by Conor Humphries in Dublin, Melissa Akin in Moscow and Tessa Walsh, Sarah White, Alasdair Reilly, Jonathan Saul, David French and Rod Morrison in London; Editing by Sophie Walker and Peter Millership)

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