By Elodie Cuzin (AFP) – Jun 26, 2012
CATARROJA, Spain — Diners finish their paella at a leisurely pace in the Hispania, a restaurant on Spain's sunny east coast, to the thwack of balls on a nearby golf course.
Catering largely to business lunchers, the restaurant is surviving, despite companies cutting their expenses in the economic crisis, says its manager Manuel Espinar. But only just.
"We've been really suffocating for two years," he says. "We have had to adapt to lower demand, lowering our prices."
Espinar, 46, would like to open a new branch to add to the three restaurants plus a catering service he runs around Catarroja, a small town near Valencia, so that he can keep on all his 20 existing employees.
"We are surviving for the moment. But we have no capacity to grow," says Espinar, in sunglasses and an elegant suit. "At the moment it is mission impossible to get financing."
Like managers of small business across Spain, he is watching anxiously to see whether Spain's looming banking bailout -- which will draw on a 100 billion-euro ($125-billion) credit line from its eurozone neighbours -- will get banks lending to them again.
"This is the handicap Spanish businesses have nowadays: they cannot fire people because they cannot afford to and they cannot grow because they have no way to finance it," says Espinar.
Staggering under piles of unpaid loans dating to a construction boom that went bust in 2008, Spain's banks are now too busy worrying about saving their own balance sheets to lend to businesses.
Figures from Spain's central bank show their lending has plunged since the height of the economic crisis in 2009. So far in 2012 it has fallen by some four percent each month compared with 2011.
The credit drought contrasts cruelly with the flood of cheap loans the banks authorised during the decade-long boom, which has left whole communities washed up with Spain's unemployment rate at more than 24 percent.
"The same financial groups were providing the land and the financing, giving you credit to buy the land and to do the work and pay the taxes," says Eloy Dura Catala, chairman of the Valencia Federation of Construction Business.
"Just about anyone could be a developer or a builder," he adds. "From that height the fall was heavy. In the Valencia region about half the companies in the sector have disappeared."
In Spain overall, more than 170,000 businesses have gone bust since 2008, most of them ones in the small and medium category that were previously the engines of growth and job creation.
The three million such companies that remain are hard-pressed to absorb Spain's five million unemployed.
"They already represent 60 percent of gross domestic product and support 80 percent of jobs," says Manuel Teruel, chairman of Spain's High Council of Chambers of Commerce.
On June 9, Spain's government secured a eurozone credit line worth up to 100 billion euros to prevent the banks collapsing under their bad loans.
Last week it announced audit results estimating the banks would need to borrow up to 62 billion euros. It said it would formally present its request for eurozone aid on Monday.
The government says the bailout was aimed at reviving lending to the economy at large. It offers "the possibility that credit will start to flow again" to small businesses, said Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
"The bailout is good news but we will only see results in the longer term. We foresee that it will take at least a year," said Espinar.
"We're going to spend another year on stand-by."
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