Foreign currency loan crux for fomer communist bloc

November 5 2008

Eastern European markets are feeling the pinch as investors pull money out of the region and local currencies plunge. Plunging domestic currencies mean higher monthly payments for businesses and households repaying foreign-denominated loans, forcing them to scale back spending.

In Budapest, project manager Imre Apostagi says the hospital upgrade he’s overseeing has stalled because his employer can’t get a foreign-currency loan.

The company borrows in foreign currencies to avoid domestic interest rates as much as double those linked to dollars, the euro and Swiss francs. Now banks are curtailing the loans as investors pull money out of eastern Europe‘s developing markets and local currencies plunge.

“There’s no money out there,” said Mr Apostagi, a project manager who asked that the medical-equipment seller he works for not be identified to avoid alarming international backers.

“We won’t collapse, but everything’s slowing to a crawl. The whole world is scared and everyone’s going a bit mad.”

Loans

Foreign-denominated loans helped fuel eastern European economies including Poland, Romania and Ukraine, funding home purchases and entrepreneurship after the region emerged from communism.

The elimination of such lending is magnifying the global credit crunch and threatening to stall the expansion of some of Europe’s fastest-growing economies.

“What has been a factor of strength in recent years has now become a social weakness,” said Tom Fallon, head of emerging markets in Paris at La Francaise des Placements, which manages $11bn.

Since the end of August, the Hungarian forint has fallen 16pc against the Swiss franc, the currency of choice for Hungarian homebuyers, and more than 8pc against the euro.

Foreign currency loans make up 62pc of all household debt in the country, up from 33pc three years ago.

Romania’s leu dropped more than 14pc against the dollar and 3.2pc against the euro.

Poland’s zloty declined more than 17pc against the dollar and 6.8pc against the euro, and Ukraine’s hryvnia plunged 22pc to the dollar and 11.5pc to the euro.

That’s even after a boost this week from an International Monetary Fund (IMF) emergency loan programme for emerging markets and the US Federal Reserve‘s decision to pump as much as $120bn into other developing countries.

The Fed said yesterday that it aims to “mitigate the spread of difficulties in obtaining US dollar funding”.

In Kiev, Ukraine, Yuriy Voloshyn, who works at a real-estate company, says he’s decided to abandon plans to buy a new television because of his dollar-based mortgage. His monthly payments have risen by 18pc, or 1,000 hryvnias (€130), since he took out the loan seven months ago.

“I only have money to pay for food and my monthly fee to the bank,” Mr Voloshyn(25) said. “I can’t even dream about anything else.”

Rafal Mrowka, a driver from Ostrow Wielkopolski in western Poland, says he became addicted to checking foreign currency rates as monthly installments on his Swiss-franc mortgage jumped 25pc.

Nervous

“I’ve even stopped getting nervous, now I can only laugh,” the 32-year-old, first-time property owner said.

The bulk of eastern Europe’s credit boom was denominated in foreign currencies because they provided for cheaper financing. For example, Hungarian consumers borrowed five times as much in foreign currencies as in forint in the three months to June.

Now banks including Munich-based Bayerische Landesbank and Austria‘s Raiffeisen International Bank Holding AG are curbing foreign-currency loans in Hungary.

In Poland, where 80pc of mortgages are denominated in Swiss francs, Bank Millennium SA, Getin Bank SA and PKO Bank Polski SA have either boosted fees or stopped lending in the currency.

The extra burden on borrowers is making a bad economic outlook worse, said Matthias Siller, who focuses on emerging markets at Baring Asset Management in London, where he manages about $4bn.

If borrowers believe local interest rates are prohibitive and foreign currency lending dries up, it means “a sharp deceleration in consumer spending,” Mr Siller said. “That will bring serious problems for the economy.”

The east has been the fastest-growing part of Europe, with Romania’s economy expanding 9.3pc in the year through June, Ukraine 6.5pc and Poland 5.8pc. The combined economy of the countries sharing the euro grew 1.4pc in the period.

Ukraine, facing financial meltdown as the hryvnia drops and prices for exports such as steel tumble, has agreed to a $16.5bn loan from the IMF while Hungary secured $26bn in loans from the IMF, the EU and the World Bank. The government forecast a 1pc economic contraction next year, the first since 1993.

The Hungarian central bank raised its benchmark interest rate by three percentage points to 11.5pc last month to defend the forint.

“Panicked customers are calling to say they’re afraid the interest on their mortgages will go up or that they won’t be able to secure mortgages,” said Nikolett Gurubi, director of lending at Otthon Centrum Belvaros, the downtown Budapest branch of a real estate agency.

“We’ve been observing a return to a good old banking rule, to lend in a currency in which people earn,” said Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, chief executive officer of Poland’s biggest lender, Bank Pekao SA.

It stopped non-zloty lending in 2003.

“Earlier, banks competed on the Swiss franc market watching only sales levels and not looking at keeping an acceptable risk level.”

The problem is a “good lesson to all of us”, Polish President Lech Kaczynski said last month at a press conference in Warsaw, where he urged Poles to stick to zloty lending.

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