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Greek banks impede recovery

Marianthi Milona/tkApril 10, 2015

While Prime minister Alexis Tsipras is fighting for fresh EU funding, Greek business leaders feel let down by their own banks, claiming the country's lenders worsen the depression and inhibit growth.

money machine in Thessaloniki
Image: DW/M.i Milona

"Somehow we are all in the same boat", Jiannis Kounavis says while he is closing the metal roller shutter of his toolmaking workshop in the city center of Thessaloniki. For months he has been watching the news about Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his struggle to obtain fresh funding for his government. He knows quite well what it feels like when you need money and nobody being there to lend it to you, he says.

The entrepreneur knows from his own personal experience what it's like to run out of money. Just before the crisis has been hitting Greece, his business was buzzing. But then there came blow after blow, and he could watched his sales decline day by day. Soon he couldn't pay his wholesaler anymore, and didn't have the money to pay for his private expenses, like rent and health insurance.

Let down by the bank

When wholesalers refused to extend his credit line, requiring cash instead, Jiannis Kounavis went to his bank to ask for a loan. As a reliable and longtime customer, he thought he wouldn't have any problem to borrow some money from the bank.

His reasoning was that the Greek government had received bailout funding from international lenders that was intended to stimulate the economy - some of which he may be able to get because the country's commercial lenders even urged their customers on their websites to apply for new loans. In reality, however, things turned out to be quite different.

"I went to all major banks in town and asked for a loan, but to no avail," Jiannis Kounavis recalls, blushing with anger. Unsurprisingly, he was not alone. Currently, four out of five business leaders can tell similar stories about the banks' lending policies.

Thessaloniki businessman Kostas Laliotis
Kostas Laliotis says that Greek banks are hoarding cash that was originally meant to resuscitate the economyImage: DW/M.i Milona

Cash-starved businesses

"These people are using the EU funding to sort out their own banking business rather than injecting the money into the real economy to stimulate trade and domestic markets," says Kostas Laliotis, who is Jiannis's next door neighbor and owns an electronics store. He has also seen business steadily decline in recent years. Without a bank loan he won't be able to make ends meet any longer, Laliotis.

The trained TV technician remembers better times, when banks used to pelt him with loan offers, for instance, to fund his next vacation, a new car or even shopping expenses during the Easter holiday season. At the time, no bank cared about collateral, he says. However, when the crisis was beginning to unfold and many Greeks couldn't pay their monthly loan installments anymore, there was a brutal awakening, especially for the banks. But why do ordinary people have to pay for this recklessness?, Jiannis Kounavis wonders.

Small loans would help

"We are not talking about big loans these days. Most people need five to ten thousand euros to get their store up and running again. They need to restock, so they are able to increase sales," he says. But even for small loans, banks would require collateral and guarantees which hardly anybody is able to provide these days. In his case, Jiannis Kounavis had to provide a flood of data without knowing, whether he would get the loan or not. Until now the toolmaker has applied four times for a loan – with no luck so far.

As a matter of fact, Greek banks have grown overly cautious about lending money to businesses as they've come to lose trust in their customers. During the crisis, they were taking huge losses on bad loans which are now proving to be enormous burdens on their balance sheets. Moreover, private bankruptcies have multiplied, meaning that this money is probably lost forever. As a result, bank officials are increasingly reluctant to openly talk about corporate figures in the public.

Greeks are taking to the streets in protest of a worsening human crisis that is affecting more and more peopleImage: SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP/Getty Images

Final destination: pawnshop

For Jiannis Kounavis the lender of last resort was the pawnshop run by the Hellenic Postbank. The bank offers what it calls a 'social service,' which dates back to 1933 and is supposed to help Greeks with minor debts to avoid bankruptcy. These days though, an estimated 15 percent of Thessaloniki's inhabitants use the service.

Hellenic Postbank's pawnbrokers are aware that people only turn to them after they have exhausted all of their options to get money. Surprisingly, more than 90 percent of borrowers manage to pay back the money and redeem their pawn, usually gold or silver valuables, according to the bank.

Jiannis Kounavis says he can't tell how the Greek economy will do in about two years time, adding that the country's main problem was not the ignorance of Greece's international bailout lenders. What troubles him more was a feeling of being abandoned by his business partners, notably the banks.