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Spanish firms caught in a credit trap

For banks, money from the European Central Bank is cheaper than ever, but small companies often have no access to it. In Spain, firms that survived the credit crunch aren't getting the capital they need to grow.

Entrepreneur Eladio Munoz operates two printing plants in the south of Madrid. He was badly affected by the economic crisis and had to close two other sites, laying off half his workforce. Today he still employs around 100 people.

During the crisis he restructured his company, expanding its export business. His customers now come from Portugal, France and Britain.

Jürgen B. Donges

Jürgen Donges says banks are playing it safe in the wake of the credit crisis

Business is good again. For 2014, he expects sales of around 8.5 million euros ($11.6 million). But he usually needs financing for contracts - and that requires money he can't get from the banks.

"The biggest problem is getting loans," Munoz said. Companies that have survived the crisis have major problems with cash flow to fund their daily business."

Munoz' clients include many large companies and multinational corporations. They often pay only months later. Cash flow is a problem. "In the last five years, we were unable to invest in new projects," he said. "We missed a lot of opportunities."

The credit crunch's long shadow

Businesses in the southern European countries like Spain, Italy and Portugal are particularly hard hit by the credit crunch. Banks are reluctant to lend to them, because they still have too many bad loans on the books in these countries.

Watch video 04:07

Small Spanish companies in search of support

"For Spanish banks, cleaning up their balance sheets has absolute priority, especially in view of the European Central Bank's planned stress test," Jürgen Donges, a Spain expert and member of the German Council of Economic Experts, said.

"It's also still more lucrative for banks to buy Treasuries than to offer private loans, the repayment of which is uncertain. There's still a substantial number of non-performing loans."

The ECB's ever-lower rates

Worker in print shop

Interest rates are at an all-time low, but companies can't access funding

The credit crunch in the European crisis countries is a key reason why the European Central Bank lowered its key rate again in early June and introduced a negative deposit rate. This is intended to put pressure on banks not to park their money at the ECB, but to lend it to the real economy.

Especially in southern Europe, companies' access to finance must be improved if the economy is to be stimulated - or so goes the theory. "This is an excellent idea, but will make no difference," Munoz said. "The banks will continue to receive low-cost money, but they won't lend it to us."

Different prices for loans

Within Europe, there are major differences in the financing conditions available to small and medium-sized enterprises. In Germany, only about 1 percent of the companies have had problems obtaining loans, while in Spain the figure is one-quarter and in Portugal one-third.

In these countries, micro-enterprises with up to nine employees form the bulk of the economy. In Spain, these make up 93.8 percent of all businesses.

"Most Spanish firms are very small, unlike in Germany," Donges said. "It is difficult for them to offer the bank adequate safeguards."

High interest rates are a problem

Another problem is the high interest rates that have dulled the appetite for loans.

Ricardo Megias runs Lassart Media Group, a marketing agency in Alcala de Henares, north of Madrid. He founded the company in 2008, the year the crisis hit. With ten employees, he has steadily built a solid customer base.

To finance orders, he typically needs sums of around 2,000 euros, but larger orders can require around 50,000 euros. But he can only get money from the banks at high interest rates - a major constraint on his ability to make competitive offers.

"We need help to be able to finance ourselves. We're not talking about subsidies or gifts," he said. "We are talking about the capital necessary to grow and create jobs."

An important pillar of the Spanish economy

Small and medium-sized enterprises employ more than a third of workers in Spain and provide 37.4 percent of value creation. During the crisis, many of these firms had to file for bankruptcy, accounting for approximately 30 percent of all business insolvencies.

This has had one positive effect: To compensate for weak domestic demand, these companies have turned to the international market. Today, a quarter of them are in the export business.

In early June, the Spanish government announced a stimulus plan to boost the economy. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said it would release 6.3 billion euros.

"The measures are aimed in the right direction," Donges said. "But to sustain production and employment in Spanish small and medium-sized companies over the long term, there must be confidence that the crisis has finally been overcome."

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