By Alexander Smith
DAVOS, Jan 26 (Reuters) - Bankers feel under siege, and from the heights of Davos in the Swiss Alps they are looking to convince the world that they have a role to play in getting economies back on their feet.
Their banks need growth, for without it the outlook for many is still grim, particularly in Europe where the euro zone debt crisis has resulted in bailouts, a retreat from lending, job cuts and government pressure to refocus their business.
Once the darlings of Davos, bank chief executives at this year's gathering are keeping a fairly low profile. Some, such as the chief executives of Italy's UniCredit and nationalised Royal Bank of Scotland, have given it a miss altogether. UniCredit's Federico Ghizzoni is attempting to raise 7.5 billion euros in capital to meet regulatory demands, while Stephen Hester is dismantling the British bank's investment banking arm.
For those who made it to the Swiss ski resort, including top executives at JP Morgan, Citigroup, HSBC and Barclays, there are back-to-back meetings. They are advising corporate clients, meeting potential investors, testing the economic pulse or seeking to persuade governments and regulators to loosen the regulatory vice, which was tightened in response to 2008's financial crisis.
The few who have chosen to speak out say they need to win over a sceptical public, also stressing the need for their services if economies are going to grow.
"We should all recommit ourselves to a robust financial system, a system that balances safety and soundness on one hand but also addresses the need for growth," Citigroup chief executive Vikram Pandit said.
"It is important for the financial system to recognise there is a great deal of anger that is directed at it for the crisis, and trust has been broken and we've got to start addressing that," Pandit said, adding banks must "serve clients and not themselves".
The problem in Europe, where a sovereign debt crisis has resulted in a second banking crisis, is that banks have responded to increased capital requirements by reducing their lending, in a process known in the industry as deleveraging.
This has been felt most acutely by small and medium sized businesses (SMEs), but also further afield by borrowers whose loans or projects are now regarded as too risky to warrant carrying on the bank's books.
"Deleveraging appears to be here to stay. And when you combine deleveraging with the increase in capital requirements that the financiers are going to be subject to...it is going to choke capital for SMEs," said NYSE Euronext Chief Executive Duncan Niederauer.
One top bank executive, who declined to be named, told Reuters that a withdrawal of the region's banks to their home markets was creating liquidity there, but was damaging other economies and threatening global trade.
Not all banks are shrinking their lending. Some such as Standard Chartered have used their dominance in the growing economies of Asia to keep on growing. Standard Chartered Chief Executive Peter Sands told Reuters that his bank had increased its lending by 75 percent between 2007 and 2011, while others have been drawing in their horns.
However, several European bank executives said that the European Central Bank's (ECB) recent liquidity lifeline, in the form of cheap three-year loans commonly known as LTROs, was not yet flowing through into lending to companies or individuals.
European banks borrowed nearly 500 billion euros from the ECB at an interest rate of 1 percent. But rather than lending it on, they are depositing it back with the European central bank at an overnight rate of 25 basis points. This means they are paying 75 basis points just to have the cash available.
The use of this insurance policy underlines just how vulnerable banks in the region still feel, after dollar funding and interbank lending dried up during the last quarter of 2011.
The tables have turned so completely that blue-chip companies with healthy cash piles are now lending to the banks, demanding collateral to protect themselves.
For some, the ECB's dramatic action on funding, under recently appointed head Mario Draghi, has changed the outlook for the region's banks.
Banking analyst Huw van Steenis of Morgan Stanley says he is now far less bearish than he was six months ago.
"I think the market underestimates the impact of the LTRO. From talking with 50 banks and policy makers, we forecast a further 150-400 billion euro expansion in the programme. I think the parallel is now growing with the liquidity injection in 1998 post LTCM and the Asian crisis," van Steenis told Reuters.
And while there are faint signs of improved sentiment, few see any real prospect of improvement in Europe in 2012.
"I am a cautious optimist," BNP Paribas Baudouin Prot told Reuters in Davos.
"We are starting to see signs of a shift in sentiment towards Europe. The ECB three-year financing facility was really a catalyst. We are on the right track, but we need to keep moving forward."
Squeezed by the new regulations which followed their near-death experience during the worst of the financial crisis, many bankers accept they face a long and painful road to recovery, particularly in Europe where economic growth is elusive.
New regulation, economic uncertainty and instability in the capital markets dominate the agenda for bank CEOs, threatening growth and eating up management time, according to a recent survey by PWC.
More than half believe that the global economy will deteriorate over the next 12 months, compared to less than 20 percent who believe it will improve. And only 29 percent of the 122 executives surveyed thought their businesses in Western Europe would grow during the year ahead, although 80 percent were confident about improving their overall revenues.
The chief executive of one bank at the meeting, who declined to be named, said European banks needed two years to implement those regulations which have already been announced. The demands of the Basel III regulations for banks to increase capital have come in for particular criticism and bankers are using Davos as a platform to make their case against it.
"This is an opportunity to lobby and get your voice heard in a relatively risk free environment," Chris Harvey, global head of financial services at Deloitte, told Reuters.
The Lloyds of London insurance market chairman John Nelson was clear in his aims for Davos.
"What I'm hoping to achieve, and it's a collective thing, is basically for business people to get across the message to politicians that we really do need to avoid any creeping regulation, increased regulation, increased protectionism - which is actually potentially much more serious," Nelson told Reuters in a TV interview.
This was echoed by Martin Senn, chief executive of Zurich Financial Services:
"You can compare it with traffic controls. If you put up traffic lights everywhere, of course banks won't have any more problems, but they also won't give the credit you need for economic growth," Senn said.
For Deloitte's Harvey, measures now being taken by governments and regulators put some banks in peril.
"I'm sure that over the next two to three years some of those financial institutions will not be around. There's clearly going to be consolidation," Harvey said.
Campaigners against the Davos meeting don't believe bankers should be let off the hook by politicians, while acknowledging what they do is important to economies.
Greenpeace head Kumi Naidoo, speaking at a "Corporations on the leash" rally in Davos said:
"These people who run our banks are not magicians they are not wizards, they are human beings who are paid an outrageous salary to perform an important function which is to manage the people's money around the world."
For people to trust banks again, they need to do a better job of explaining what they contribute, said Mark Penn, chief executive of public relations firm Burson-Marsteller.
"The banks have to get out more and explain the good they do, the role they play. Most people don't understand how critical financing is to consumers to buy every product or build every project because the debate on them has been telescoped to bankers' bonuses and extraordinary risks," Penn said.
And they have some unlikely supporters for the task ahead.
"Each one of us is made for goodness, even bankers," Desmond Tutu told the Davos meeting. (Additional reporting by Emma Thomasson and Paul Carrel; editing by Janet McBride)