EBRD finds a life after Attali: Peter Torday on the strategy and prospects of the austere new regime at the 'glistening bank'

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The Independent Online
A DENTIST in Nizny Novgorod, formerly the secret Russian city of Gorky, 600 km from Moscow, is negotiating a small dollar loan to buy vital equipment.

In Tula, several hundred kilometres to the south, a television services company is taking a similar credit to expand its activities, which include advertisement production.

Both borrowers are part of a programme launched by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, at the behest of the Group of Seven nations, to foster small enterprises in Russia.

The EBRD has set aside dollars 300m and launched pilot work in Nizny Novgorod, Tula and Tomsk, in western Siberia. The aim is to deploy small amounts of EBRD money - financing individual loans of dollars 50,000-dollars 75,000 - through local financial institutions to introduce lenders and borrowers to the ways of the market.

It is a landmark development for the EBRD, which has been lending to, and taking equity stakes in, the active and developing private sectors in central Europe. It has also participated in development projects in the remote republics of the former Soviet Union where hardly any private sector exists.

But nothing has been done, either by the EBRD or other international financial institutions, to fuel the growth of Russia's small businesses or entrepreneurs.

These have difficulties in borrowing from their own local banks, which are highly conservative and, in the main, staffed by former state employees. Emerging small businesses, the seed corn of any private sector, need to borrow to survive and prosper.

'We are working to our comparative advantage, focusing on the private sector and local enterprises as much as, if not more than, on joint ventures with foreign partners,' says a senior EBRD official. 'You can only really reach them through local financial institutions.'

The EBRD provides all the money, but insists that local banks shoulder half the risk. It wants to involve both lender and borrower in the market, and to encourage the banks to reach out to more local businesses. The idea is to build on these pilots and, over the next year or so, to fan out across Russia.

It is one of the changes taking place in an institution once dubbed 'the glistening bank' after the high-spending antics of Jacques Attali, former president. His successor, Jacques de Larosiere, shuns the oxygen of publicity as much as Mr Attali thirsted after it. But the former governor of the Banque de France has quietly begun to ring changes at the bank.

The Russian programme, for instance, reflects a shift from the EBRD's previous practice of almost always engaging in joint venture projects, where local firms have had a foreign investor as partner, in borrowing countries. But an internal task force report, set up by Mr de Larosiere to establish the EBRD's strategic objectives, urged improved country strategies, focusing credits and investments on local companies, not just on joint ventures.

More controversially, the report urges the bank to cut back on public sector loans, boosting lending to the private sector instead. But like everyone else who has addressed the issue, the report is silent on whether the bank should seek a changed mandate freeing it from the obligation to lend 60 per cent to the private sector and fully 40 per cent to the public sector.

Though public sector lending was inevitably higher when the EBRD began operating in 1991, private sectors have mushroomed in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

By reorganising the EBRD, Mr de Larosiere has gone some way to addressing this issue. He has merged the development and merchant banking arms of the bank, and established a 'north' and 'south' region, splitting the bank's operations along geographic lines.

A senior G7 official said: 'As it grew, the development and merchant banking teams became embarrassing. Teams moved around the same country without knowing the others were there.'

Mr de Larosiere, according to this official, has made 'an extremely impressive start'. Alongside the reorganisation, the new president has imposed a more austere regime, eliminating the free- spending expense account ways of the Attali bank.

He is also encouraging the gradual decentralisation of the bank, most of whose operations are run from its London headquarters in Broadgate, by boosting the number of EBRD local representatives.

This is even being considered as part of the Russian small business project. If it is successful and local officials eventually gain decision- making powers, this scheme might one day supersede the regional reorganisation.

But considerable challenges lie ahead. The EBRD rightly adopts a cautious attitude to loans for 'industrial restructuring' - converting, for instance, defence plants to peaceful use or scaling down the communist-era industrial monoliths - because these are inherently high risk.

Strategically, it prefers new business creation because in the medium term this will probably become more important. The bank's task force report emphasises the quality of lending over quantity. While this may be the correct course, it could prove controversial.

One of the charges levelled against the Attali regime was the slow pace of lending compared with spending on the bank's new headquarters. Yet placing the weight on quality loans will ensure that continues.

The total value of projects approved by the end of last year amounted to ecu3.759bn ( pounds 2.9bn) (mobilising, in theory, some ecu11.405bn in investments when private and insitutitional western investment in EBRD projects is taken into account).

But only ecu556m was disbursed at end-1993. Although the pace of loan, credit or equity agreements is quickening, the total still looks a drop in the ocean to participants in the emerging market economies in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Yet it is against this backdrop that the task force report audaciously urges shareholding governments to begin consideration of an EBRD capital increase next year. But it acknowledges that the emphasis on quality lending will slow the pace of agreements, and hence postpone the day of recapitalisation.

This policy, the report admits, could delay the point at which the EBRD, launched in 1991, breaks even from a current small loss. However, under Mr de Larosiere's austere and more focused management, the bank has just announced a profit of ecu4m for 1993 - the first recorded. Emphasis on quality may delay decisive profitability by about two years into the latter half of the 1990s.

The EBRD annual meeting in St Petersburg in April is likely to prove uneventful, which is no doubt how Mr de Larosiere would like it. But since the volume of loan disbursements may grow only slowly, debate over a possible capital increase in three or four years may prove controversial for western governments cutting back heavily on budget deficits.

(Photographs omitted)