World and Nation

Europe’s banks reluctant to aid companies in need of cash

LONDON — European governments are not the only ones struggling with debt — so are some of the region’s companies.

As profits and sales slip, some European businesses are scrambling to pay their bills. With banks reluctant to lend, the fear is that companies will be unable to come up with the cash they need and will be forced to take drastic action, further weighing on the economy.

“There’s a lack of business confidence across Europe” said Jonathan Loynes, chief European economist in London at the research organization Capital Economics. “Lending to the private sector is deteriorating, and there’s enormous stress on the European economy.”

The pressure is mounting. Insolvency — when a firm’s debts exceed its assets and cash flow — is expected to rise 12 percent this year in the eurozone. Countries like Greece, Spain and Italy are expected to record the highest annual increases. In the United States, the number of insolvencies is falling.

In January, Petroplus Holdings of Switzerland, the largest independent oil refiner in Europe, said it was filing for insolvency after lenders demanded repayment on $1.75 billion of outstanding debt. The company, facing dwindling margins as a result of high oil prices and weak economic conditions, tried to negotiate with creditors. But BNP Paribas of France, Credit Suisse of Switzerland and other lenders already dealing with the fallout from the European sovereign debt crisis decided that Petroplus was not worth the risk.

“We were ultimately not able to come to an agreement with our lenders to resolve these issues given the very tight and difficult European credit and refining markets,” the company’s chief executive, Jean-Paul Vettier, said in a statement on Jan. 24.

Now other companies, including energy multinationals and private equity firms, are sifting through the pieces. Nearly 40 bidders are assessing the British operations of Petroplus, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, which is overseeing the sale of the assets in Britain.

It is a bad omen. Roughly two-thirds of European companies that become insolvent will eventually file for bankruptcy, according to Ludovic Subran, chief economist of Euler Hermes, a credit insurance firm in Paris.

“The business environment has become worse,” Subran said. “Many companies are losing their competitiveness and being hit by a reduction in consumer spending.”

This year is shaping up badly for the Continent. The International Monetary Fund said on Jan. 24 that the eurozone’s gross domestic product would fall an estimated 0.5 percent in 2012. The downturn will be most severe in Southern Europe, where Italy’s economy is expected to contract by 2.2 percent and Spain’s by 1.7 percent.

The economic headwinds are wreaking havoc on corporate profits. As Europe grapples with recession, unemployment is rising, consumer confidence is plunging and manufacturing orders are falling.