Central bank action likely to be of little help for euro banks

PARIS (AFP) - Coordinated action by the world's top central banks to step up dollar lending, which sent markets soaring, will help little to prevent European banks from reducing their business in greenback and possibly causing a credit crunch in the process, bankers said. The joint measures were announced Wednesday by the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the central banks of Canada, Japan and Switzerland, but the move was really aimed to ease the access of eurozone banks to dollars. Such facilities have existed since September 2008, but until now were significantly more expensive than borrowing on the market, and the latest move cut their cost by nearly half. The new offer "is competitive in the current market conditions," said one bank executive who asked to remain anonymous, which he said could prompt European banks to begin borrowing dollars from the ECB. Such borrowing has been rare as banks are afraid of it coming out that they turned to the "window of shame" as the short-term central bank facilities are called in banking circles. At the last operation only $352 million was taken by banks -- a drop in the bucket. In theory the ECB guarantees the anonymity of borrowers, publishing only aggregated figures. But banks are wary, pointing to frequent leaks of information. "People can talk, and that's a problem, so therefore you don't do it," explained one banker who asked his name not be used. Eurozone banks have been scrambling for dollars since August when US investment funds, which had been their major source to borrow dollars, pulled out tens of billions over heightened concerns about the eurozone debt crisis. The squeeze was so sharp that France's top three listed banks announced in September measures to drastically reduce their activities that depend on short-term dollar financing. Among the operations to go -- financing of aircraft purchases which are almost exclusively denominated in euros -- a business in which top French banks had been very active. Such strategic decisions won't be reversed by the central bank action. "The shift has been made, it is definitive," said a bank chief. "We wouldn't want to live through twice what happened this summer." Another banker said: "It's not just because you have this facility that you are going to go and develop loans in dollars." The central bank facilities are temporary, while European banks decided to cut back to rely on just stable sources of dollars to finance their business, he added. "Unfortunately, the (central bank) move won't be enough to prevent a credit crunch as banks will continue to reduce the size of their balance sheets," said analysts at French investment bank Natixis. For Peter Chatwell, a fixed-income strategist at Credit Agricole Corporate and Investment Bank, the central bank action "just boosted confidence in the short term" without resolving any of the real problems of European banks.

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