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By Paul Carrel and Sakari Suoninen
FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Loans to the euro zone's private sector shrank by more than expected in June, starving the economy of the funds needed to sustain recovery and piling pressure on the European Central Bank to take fresh action.
Loans to the private sector shrank by 1.6 percent from the same month a year ago, ECB data released on Thursday showed, a bigger fall than even the lowest forecast in a Reuters poll of economists, which gave a mid-range reading of -1.1 percent.
The latest weak lending figures highlight one of main obstacles to recovery in the euro zone, where purchasing manager indexes (PMI) showed private industry expanded for the first time in more than a year in July.
Lackluster demand is dragging on the appetite for credit, while banks restrain lending to repair their balance sheets.
In a step to reviving lending to the bloc's struggling small- and mid-sized businesses, the ECB said last week it would let banks use more of the assets once blamed for triggering the financial crisis as collateral for cheap loans.
Howard Archer, economist at Global Insight, said the weak lending figures heaped pressure on the ECB to do more.
"The further marked fall in lending to euro zone businesses in June maintains pressure on the ECB to come up with concrete measures aimed at improving credit availability to companies, especially small and medium-sized ones," he said.
"We think it is very possible that the ECB will eventually take its key policy rate down from 0.50 percent to 0.25 percent as we anticipate that the euro zone will continue to find it very tough to develop clear growth," he added.
The ECB holds a policy meeting next Thursday. No change in interest rates is expected.
An ECB survey released on Wednesday showed that euro zone banks, facing tougher capital requirements, tightened lending standards for both companies and home loans in the second quarter even though their access to funding eased.
Seeking to reassure markets unnerved by the U.S. Federal Reserve's exit plan from money printing, the ECB said earlier this month it would keep interest rates at record lows for an extended period and may yet cut further.
ECB policymakers have since qualified this forward guidance, with Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann said on July 11 the ECB had not "tied itself to the mast".
A Reuters poll of 70 economists published on Wednesday showed the ECB is probably done cutting interest rates but may still take other measures to stimulate an economy that may soon creep out of recession.
The survey was conducted before the PMI survey suggested the euro zone private sector grew this month for the first time since January 2012 - news that will ease pressure on the ECB to further loosen monetary policy.
Banks granted non-financial firms 12 billion euros ($16 billion) less in loans in June than in the previous month, data adjusted for sales and securitizations showed, after a fall of 18 billion euros in May.
Euro zone M3 money supply - a more general measure of cash in the economy - grew at an annual pace of 2.3 percent in June, slowing from 2.9 percent in May and below the consensus forecast of 3.0 percent in a Reuters poll of analysts.
(Writing by Paul Carrel Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.)