By Axel Bugge and Andrei Khalip
LISBON (Reuters) - In Portugal, getting a loan is still harder than in almost any other country in the eurozone. But if your company exports, you may be in luck.
The country has been at the sharp end of Europe's credit crunch during the region's debt crisis and loans have contracted non-stop since 2010.
Unlike in Spain, Italy or even Greece, credit to companies is still shrinking, but thanks to money printing by the European Central Bank (ECB), it may now be stabilising, with loans to exporters on the rise.
Companies of all kinds are getting calls from banks offering loans, but they do not always like what they hear.
Joao Costa, director of Arpial, producing metal parts mainly for the domestic market, said two banks which got in touch recently presented much higher commission and charges than when Arpial last borrowed three years ago, offsetting lower rates.
An "exaggerated number of guarantees" demanded by banks was a big obstacle, too, he said, adding that Arpial might borrow next year to expand if the market for its products improves.
"Exporting companies will have more access to larger bank loans, but they have to have good (debt) ratios and assets," Costa said.
Antonio Mendes Ferreira, head of United Resins, which exports most of the products it makes for printing inks, said liquidity in the banking system had improved significantly in the past year but only exporters were feeling the benefit.
"The feeling in the market is that exporters in the industrial sector are the preferred target of commercial banks offering credit."
His words are borne out by the data, which shows credit to the export sector rose 3.8 percent in the year to March, up from a 0.9 percent rise in 2014.
That should put a smile on the face of Portugal's creditors; the European Union and IMF's bailout programme, which Lisbon exited last year, was intended precisely to boost exports and channel investment to the most competitive firms.
"I think banks are now quite willing to lend to companies with reasonable risk profiles. So we need more good-risk companies, which takes us back to exports - exporters tend to be more productive, larger and better-managed," said Albert Jaeger, the IMF representative in Lisbon.
EUROZONE LENDING TICKING UP
Export growth has been the main engine of Portugal's recovery from three years of recession. Exports made up 40 percent of GDP in 2014, up from 28 percent five years ago.
In March, the ECB launched a plan to buy 60 billion euros a month of bonds in the euro zone to stave off deflation and get credit to companies and consumers. On Tuesday, the ECB decided to speed up the pace of money printing over the next two months.
Overall lending in the euro zone increased for the first time in three years in March when compared to a year earlier.
ECB data also points to improvements in lending to non-financial companies, which grew in every month of the first quarter and was almost 1 percent higher at the end of March from December, although still 0.6 percent lower than a year ago.
Southern Europe is behind, but Spain chalked up a 0.3 percent gain in lending to companies in February and March, in Italy it rose 0.5 percent in March from February and even troubled Greece saw a slight increase from end-2014 levels.
Portugal's pace of monthly declines in credit has slowed to close to zero in February and March, but the overall flow of credit was still down 4 percent in the year to March. Lending to the export sector and car loans were the only exceptions.
Antonio Saraiva, head of the Portuguese Industry Confederation, expected funds to flow mainly into replenishment of stocks and equipment rather than expansion.
Even exporters are looking for better terms than those that banks have to offer when it comes to new projects.
Inarbel, a textile company in north Portugal, which exports 90 percent of its output, is considering expanding to reach three new markets abroad, but is applying for a state programme of incentives that channels EU cohesion funds to firms.
"That also involves banks, but at zero rate," said Inarbel chief Jose Armindo. "If I get enough money, I'll do a full expansion, creating jobs. If not, I'll just grow bit by bit."
Still, Inarbel relies on 3-month bank loans to finance purchases of materials while it waits for revenues from exports, and it has already felt the fall in credit costs.
"Paying rates of 4 percent during the crisis was very hard. Now we can pay suppliers earlier and make some money in the process thanks to low rates," he said.
Economists say the overall debt ratios in Portugal's economy are precisely why there will be no sudden gush of credit.
"The situation remains that those who need credit are not getting it and those that already have access to lending, have it," said Filipe Garcia, head of Informacao de Mercados Financeiros economic consultancy.
Portugal's private sector is heavily indebted, even more than Greece's and non-recoverable loans continue to rise, hitting record highs in February and showing that households and companies still need to deleverage before taking on new loans.
"The main restriction to financing is no longer liquidity, but mostly risk perception ... which can still represent a block to investment," the confederation's Saraiva said.
Corporate debt has only slipped to 153 percent of GDP at the end of 2014 from its peak of 167 percent in March 2013. Household debt was 85 percent, down from a peak of 96 percent.
The IMF said this week that "eliminating the corporate debt overhang is essential for Portugal's recovery", while efforts by the authorities so far have been "short of a systemic solution".
"Banks started offering more credit only in March and April," said Garcia. "For now it is not having an impact on the economy, let's see if it does."
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)