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Banks struggle in a borrowers' market

Banks with excess liquidity are desperate to lend but companies in Europe feel no compelling need to borrow. That's tough for pure commercial banks faced with razor-thin fees. Lenders are praying for an M&A revival soon. More worrying in the long term than declining margins may be weaker credit standards.


SYLVAIN DE FORGES, head of financial operations at Veolia Environnement, was speaking at the Euromoney Global Borrowers and Investors Forum in London last month. There are, he said, 31 banks in the company's loan syndicate group, and about eight in its M&A group, yet many more than eight of the 31 lenders want a piece of Veolia's advisory work. "This presents problems a few years down the road but no-one is addressing it," he said, adding, "Sometimes I'm very pleased not to be a banker."

Banks don't usually inspire pity in their clients, who are mindful of hefty fees. So when company's senior financial officials start feeling sorry for bankers, even if half in jest, you know things must be pretty tough out there.

In Europe's syndicated loan market, as in the US, borrowers are in the driving seat – and they know it. Prices on the core refinancing business are dropping to levels not seen since the mid-1990s, typical tenors are lengthening from one year to five, fees are falling and so are documentation standards. Because loan demand has been limited and banks that have cleaned up their balance sheets after the corporate scandals of the past few years have a surfeit of liquidity, they are desperate to advance funds.

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