Spain threatened by resurgent credit crunch

More than a century ago, Manuel Rodriguez left his fishing village on Spain’s southern coast and moved to Madrid to build guitars for local flamenco musicians. Three generations on, the family is still in the trade.

Based in the small town of Esquivias south of the capital, Guitarras Manuel Rodriguez and Sons turns out more than 5,000 handcrafted flamenco and classical guitars every year, along with a small range of other wooden instruments.

Despite the emphasis on tradition and manual skill, this is a capital-intensive business. The work floor is dotted with heavy machinery, and amid the rows of half-finished guitars there are carefully-stacked piles of decades-old precious woods: ebony and mahogany from Africa, and rare Brazilian rosewood. “This is our bank,” says Manuel Rodriguez Jr, who owns the business with his brother, as he passes the valuable wooden slabs.

Starting a company such as his from scratch, he adds, would be almost impossible in Spain’s current economic climate: “If you go to a bank today, no one will give you credit. And even if they gave you credit, they would demand a big deposit and would demand eight or 10 per cent in interest.”

Similar complaints about the dearth of lending by banks can be heard in small and midsized businesses up and down the country, and are raising concern not just within the Spanish government but also the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.

Spain’s economic crisis and the near-collapse of its banking sector last year have conspired to choke off the flow of bank loans – threatening to dry out the vast and versatile pool that dominates Spain’s private sector.

In the five years since the crisis started, no fewer than 450,000 small and medium-sized enterprises have gone under, says Jesús Terciado, the president of Cepyme, the Spanish SME association. “But it is not just about staying in business – it’s also about growth. There is no way you can grow your business at the moment,” he says.

Countries such as Spain and Italy are acutely sensitive to a lending crunch for SMEs, because so much of their economy depends on them – and because companies such as Mr Rodriguez’s in turn depend so heavily on bank loans. In the case of Spain, SMEs make up 99.9 per cent of all businesses and employ almost three out of every four workers. If they cannot survive and thrive, neither can the Spanish economy at large.

Lending surveys by the ECB show that the lack of bank credit is among the top worries for small businesses in Spain – with 27 per cent of respondents saying it is the biggest problem of all. Only Greece has a higher share of small businesses worried about credit.

Researchers at Deutsche Bank, meanwhile, point out that last year almost 20 per cent of all loan applications by Spanish SMEs were rejected – twice as many as for large companies. “Banks in the struggling countries [such as Spain and Italy] are materially tougher on SMEs than on large companies,” it says.

What worries policy makers in Spain is that the funding crunch for SMEs persists despite the recent improvement in investor sentiment towards the country as a whole. Both the treasury and Spanish multinationals are once again meeting keen demand for their bonds, driving down yields and borrowing costs. The general easing, however, has yet to filter through to the SME sector.

In the latest attempt to alleviate the problem, Spain’s government in February launched measures to improve the flow of capital to small businesses. Those include a reduction in value added tax and a beefed-up regime for credit guarantees. Some of Spain’s largest banks, meanwhile, have set up new SME credit facilities to help loosen the funding constraints.

Read the whole article over at the Financial Times

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