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A major dilemma for the banks

Autor: Daniel Daianu 07 Oct 2009 - 00:00
After the central banks started intervening massively (by injections of liquidity, providing guarantees and accepting a wide range of collaterals) to limit the economic depression, a major dispute appeared between them and the commercial banks. The central banks, like the governments, tried to make the credit resuming a condition for their support.

Though, it must be said, that often the financial assistance of the State was required by the need to avoid the collapse of the financial system since there are no viable alternatives. Moreover, the commercial banks seek to limit damage during recession by more rigorous selection criteria as far as their customers are concerned. In terms of individual rationality of the banks, their behavior seems natural, especially since they are in a process of "deleveraging", of recovery of their balances by seeking to increase their capital as a share of the held assets and liabilities.

Moreover, what seems rational at individual level, may be worse in terms of systemic perspective, when, for example, the credit crunch hits the real economy unduly. This dispute could be observed in Romania as well (in fact the interest rates charged by banks have been controversial for many years). Non-banking businessmen criticize the local financial institutions for their very high interest rates, well above the ones in most EU countries. It is true that the exchange rate fluctuations, as well as the requirements of the national bank, are a very good explanation for the behavior of the commercial banks.

However, we have a decreasing inflation, a dramatic reduction in the current account deficit (from 1.5% in 2008 to probably about 5% this year) and funding from the IMF, World Bank and European Commission shows that Romania no longer faces a foreign exchange constraint of the intensity felt in the second part of 2008 and the first half of 2009. It is true that the process of improving public finances system will be extremely difficult, that it will take time, which will cause uncertainty to persist.

But, all in all, they will always remember the high interest margins, which do not help the recovery of local economy. Commercial banks are at the intersection of two contradictory interests. They want to improve their balance sheets by avoiding the assumption of new risks deemed unacceptable. The Vienna Agreement (between the government, the NBR, the private banks and the foreign donors) has tried, moreover, to mitigate the inclination to withdraw liquidity from the country.

But there is another logic behind that as well, which says that if the banks important on the Romanian market don't serve their clients in this period it is like they would be shooting themselves.

• Translated by Sorin Balan

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