Banks Show Tepid Interest as E.C.B. Begins Program of Cheap Loans


September. 18, 2014

FRANKFURT — Banks borrowed less than expected from the European Central Bank in a disappointing start for a program intended to encourage more lending to businesses and households and to pump money into the ailing eurozone economy.

The central bank said on Thursday that it would allot nearly 83 billion euros, or about $107 billion, to 255 commercial banks next week. Estimates of how much money banks would borrow had varied widely, but many analysts said before the announcement that anything less than €100 billion would be a disappointment.

The program is part of a broader effort by the central bank to inject as much as €1 trillion into the eurozone economy, and the borrowing data on Thursday was closely watched as an indicator of whether the central bank would be able to meet its goal. The loans are meant to drive down the cost of borrowing and encourage lending, especially in countries like Italy and Portugal, where a lack of credit has impeded economic growth.

But Mr. van Vliet added that he did not think that the central bank would be alarmed by the outcome, because many banks may be waiting until December, when the E.C.B. will issue another round of the four-year loans.

In a statement, the central bank said the money would support lending and was part of a package that would have “sizable impact.” In all, the E.C.B. plans to issue eight rounds of the loans through June 2016.

Modest demand for the loans could prompt the central bank to be more aggressive next month when it begins buying bundles of mortgages, credit card debt and other loans known as asset-backed securities in further efforts to stimulate the bloc’s economy. The central bank has said that it will provide details of the securities purchases after its next monetary policy meeting, on Oct. 2.

Analysts regard the purchases of asset-backed securities as a mild form of quantitative easing, the large-scale purchases of assets that the Federal Reserve has used to funnel money into the United States economy. Unlike the Fed, the E.C.B. does not yet plan to buy government bonds. But pressure to do so could rise if demand by commercial banks for E.C.B. loans remains weak.

The euro rose slightly against the dollar in midday trading on Thursday, a sign that investors were not unduly worried about the low demand for the loans.

Under the program, banks can borrow money at a fixed annual interest rate of 0.15 percent for four years, but they must repay the money in two years if they do not use it to issue loans to businesses and individuals. The money cannot be used to finance real estate purchases.

The banks applied for €82.6 billion under the program, known as targeted longer-term refinancing operations, and will receive the money on Wednesday, the central bank said.

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Despite the attractive interest rate, there was uncertainty as to whether banks would want the funds, either because of a lack of demand for credit or a dearth of creditworthy borrowers.

The central bank cash was likely to be most attractive to banks in countries like Italy, where the central bank interest rate was about 1 percentage point lower than market rates available to banks, according to economists at UBS.

“The cheap funding opportunity offered by the E.C.B. should benefit Spanish and Italian banks the most, in particular the second-tier banks,” economists at UBS said in a note to investors on Tuesday.

In addition, many banks are behaving cautiously until they know how well they have fared in stress tests being conducted separately by the central bank.

The results of the stress tests, as well as of a comprehensive review of bank assets aimed at flushing out hidden problems, are due in late October. Many analysts expect banks to take fuller advantage of the cheap cash when the E.C.B. issues a second round of loans in December. By then, banks will have a better idea where they stand in the eyes of regulators.

Analysts predicted that the two rounds of loans together would add up to about €300 billion and that most of the money would be issued in December. The central bank has not said explicitly how much money it wants to inject into the economy through the various measures. But Mario Draghi, the president of the central bank, implied this month that the bank’s goal was to add €1 trillion.

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