Tourism exposures could be post-pandemic pain point for Southern European banks

The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a blow to the tourism industry in Southern European holiday hot spots Spain, Italy and Greece. International tourist arrivals are down, hotels are running at just a fraction of peak occupancy and numerous small businesses are struggling with slow trade.

Loan repayment holidays granted by banks plus generous government support packages have helped countless businesses in the tourism industry to stay afloat during one of the worst tourism seasons on record, staving off a wave of bankruptcies, according to industry observers.

But there is an acknowledgement in the banking community that these measures cannot carry on indefinitely, and that lenders could find themselves facing an uptick in nonperforming and unlikely-to-pay loans once they end.

Banking exposures

Travel and tourism are major drivers of economies in Southern Europe, making up 14.3% and 13.0% of GDP in Spain and Italy respectively, and 20.8% in Greece, according to 2019 data from the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Unsurprisingly, this segment makes up an important component of banks’ loan books in the region. The average exposure among the 27 Spanish, Greek and Italian banks included in the European Banking Authority’s 2020 Transparency Exercise to the accommodation and food services sector — a proxy for the tourism industry — is 5.63% of each bank’s total loans and advances.

But for some banks, this figure is considerably higher, such as Italy’s Cassa Centrale Banca Credito Cooperativo Italiano SpA at 11.04%, and Piraeus Bank SA at 10.80%, according the IÉSEG School of Management’s data, which is based on the EBA Transparency Exercise.

‘Unprecedented stress’

Although Greece has still managed to have something of a tourism season this year, times are hard, according to Alexandros Vassilikos, president of The Hellenic Chamber of Hotels.

“The tourism season has been — as foreseen — very bad. Nevertheless, an impressive 70% of Greek hotels opened in spite of all the difficulties. The month of July ended with an overall national hotel occupancy just short of 30%. We expect August to end a bit higher than that,” he said in an email.

In Greece, nonresident tourist arrivals and tourism revenues in the first half of 2020 were down 76.9% year over year and 87.1% year over year, respectively, according to National Bank of Greece’s economic analysis division.

The COVID-19 crisis places “unprecedented stress” on the services sector, and especially on the tourism industry, Nikos Magginas, chief economist at National Bank of Greece, said in an email. This is true not just in Greece but in other Southern European countries where the contribution of inbound tourism to GDP is relatively high, he said.

Despite a bad summer, Greece’s hotels are clinging on for survival, according to Vassilikos.

“We have no recorded COVID-related bankruptcies so far and hope and aim to keep it that way,” he said.

A helping hand

The majority of banks in the region have granted loan repayment holidays to clients who have been badly impacted by the pandemic, which has helped businesses that might otherwise have defaulted to remain performing. Governments have also stepped in with state-backed emergency loans to companies facing a liquidity crunch due to the pandemic. In Italy, the government’s “Cura Italia” scheme aims to provide guarantees on up to €750 billion of emergency lending.

“Government support measures have been very important in most countries,” Pablo Manzano, banking analyst at DBRS Morningstar, said in an email.

In Spain, companies in the tourism segment have been particularly active in taking up emergency loans backed by the government, he said.

“As of mid-August, the data provided by the Spanish authorities, shows that funding channeled through this scheme to tourism activities … represents around 15.25% of the total scheme, or 3.6 times the average funding used by other sectors.”

In March, the Spanish government approved a plan to provide €100 billion in state-backed credit lines to companies struggling due to the pandemic.

Speaking in an earlier interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence, Elena Carletti, professor of finance at Bocconi University in Milan, argued that a deluge of bankruptcies in the tourism industry is by no means a foregone conclusion.

Given the significance of tourism to the Italian economy, the government is likely to do all it can to support the sector through the crisis, according to Carletti.

“The government will not allow it to just die,” she said.

Kicking the can down the road

For Rym Ayadi, director of the Euro-Mediterranean Network for Economic Studies, neither government support measures nor loan moratoria can go on forever, and this raises serious concerns about what will happen to both the tourism industry and the lenders that support it.

Extending loan moratoria is one option for banks, but it is not necessarily in their best interests, she said in an email.

“One scenario is that banks may extend loan moratoria for another six months, but this would still leave banks exposed to economic pain, and could even result in a banking crisis if exposures to the sector become too large.”

Large exposures to the tourism sector are “not good news” for banks, and they need to be wary of overextending themselves in this area, she said.

Ayadi said that whatever happens, it is inevitable that banks will eventually see an uptick in nonperforming loans from the tourism sector due to the pandemic.

Ayadi’s concerns about the end of loan moratoria are echoed by bank CEOs in the region. UniCredit SpA’s Jean-Pierre Mustier said during an earnings call the banks could see an uptick in bad loans once the grace period for struggling borrowers ends. The bank had €34.50 billion of loans under moratoria as of the end of the second quarter for all sectors. Piraeus Bank’s CEO said in the most recent earnings call that the end of loan moratoria would be the real test for the bank, which had granted repayment holidays on €4.00 billion of loans as of the end of the second quarter.

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