Grabbing the nettle
French banks have survived the credit crunch relatively well – certainly better than many of their Anglo-Saxon rivals – but two banks in particular stand out. SG and BNP have been beneficiaries of industry consolidation, thinning out the number of rivals, while both boast diverse product lines which they insist can be delivered to clients in an integrated way. There is an air of optimism in Paris, as Justin Pugsley reports.
BNP Paribas and Socgen have emerged as the strongmen of the French financial scene. Both have promising outlooks, having gained market share and started the process of expanding their businesses, to maintain global ambitions. They also happen to be the country's leading investment banks.
Domestic rivals Calyon and Natexis have not come out so well. They invested in complex toxic mortgage assets and are now having to work through those problems before they can consider going back on the offensive.
The French state set aside some €40bn for capital injections into French banks and €320bn for loan guarantees. BNP Paribas, for example, borrowed €5.1bn, principally to strengthen its balance sheet rather than to “save” it. In exchange for state help, French banks are expected to support domestic lending and show bonus restraint. The top six banks have all tapped the state for funds.
“The management of BNP Paribas have done a very good job,” said Ingo Frommen, an analyst with LBBW. “They have built up very successful fixed income and derivatives businesses.” The bank has also avoided any significant exposure to toxic assets, which has left it in a strong position, he added.
“Buying the operations of Fortis was a very good move,” said Christian Hamann, an analyst with Hamburger Sparkasse, of BNP Paribas’ acquisition of the bank’s Belgium and Luxembourg operations for €14.5bn, overnight turning it into the Eurozone's largest deposit taking bank. “It widened their deposit base while strengthening their investment banking business.” As of June 30, the group had €540bn in deposits and €700bn worth of assets under management. It's tier one capital stood at a respectable 9.3%, compared with 7.8% on December 31, 2008.
In a further sign of strength, the corporate and investment banking unit reported a pretax income of €1.145bn, compared to €523m in the second quarter 2008. Over the same period revenues were €3.351bn, up 81%, largely on the back of a stunning performance by the fixed income unit. Indeed, Jaap Meijer, an analyst with Evolution, cites the performance of CIB as justification for giving BNPP a buy rating.
“What was missing was the physical oil and gas trading, but the Fortis acquisition brought that with it,” said Alain Papiasse, head of investment banking with BNP Paribas. This complemented the bank's existing commodities derivatives and finance business, he said. The oil and gas business is one of BNPP's success stories, having grown strongly over the last five years. However, BNP is unlikely to make another purchase of this size for some time: it is cautious about making big “transformative” acquisitions, said Papiasse.
As part of a more organically driven growth strategy the bank maintains a wide range of products, said Papiasse, with particular emphasis on its cross-selling abilities. This is helping to support the divisions that have been hardest hit by the slowdown, such as equity derivatives. “We want to be ready for when the market comes back, so we do not want to lose know-how in the meantime,” said Papiasse.
This is typical of the attention BNP Paribas has paid to positioning itself for the new post credit-crunch world. It is reorganising its businesses in various territories into larger regional groupings, and is sticking close to its customer base with a view to building stronger client relationships.
Commenting on other initiatives: “We are a leader in euro-denominated bonds in Europe and we want to consolidate that position,” said Papiasse. “We will keep investing in that market. We want to develop more distribution with long funds and asset managers, especially in the US.” He also indicated a desire to up the bank's presence in US dollar issues.
A unified approach
The other leading French player, Societe Generale CIB, is focussing on strengthening the coverage of its three core divisions: investment banking; global finance; and global markets. Despite dividing the business into three divisions the bank's aim is on providing a unified face to customers. “Teams work as one for the client. Different specialists can be brought in for specific tasks,” said Jean Francois Mazaud, deputy head of global finance with SG CIB.
The unified theme is replicated across other areas of the business. In the global markets division, the bank has sought to exploit synergies by putting together a unified equity and fixed income research team, devising unified structured solutions for investors and setting up a global trading unit overlooking debt and equity, said Mazaud.
SG CIB has a strong historical presence in derivatives, structured finance and capital markets, where it maintains a global reach. And the economic downturn has opened an opportunity for the bank to beef up its M&A team. “On the issuer side, we have long lasting recognised franchises in equity and debt capital markets, financing and hedging,” said Mazaud. “Even if M&A volumes are down, there’s no doubt that they will bounce back while the global economy will recover. It therefore makes sense for us to further develop our M&A business now.” The bank is therefore looking to add up to 35 M&A and senior bankers by the first quarter of 2010.
“More generally, the credit crunch is a unique opportunity to enhance our investment banking franchise, said Mazaud. “Many rivals have either disappeared or are tied up with internal restructuring. Against that, client needs are intact – or have even increased. Having in front of them global, organised, and pro-active banking partners seems to make the difference, from what we hear."
The crisis has brought about a complete change of approach in areas such as lending, Mazaud added. Corporate clients are finding it increasingly difficult to raise capital in the way they did in the pre-crunch days. SG believes its wide range of products and solutions, coupled with a high level of coordination and integration, stand it in good stead in this new environment. Its leading position in convertible bonds has come in handy with so many corporates looking to refinance their balance sheets. Meanwhile in the primary bond market, where the bank is number three in the world, the strategy is to remain in the top five.
The bank does have an obvious gap in corporate brokering in the UK, which some have suggested it could attempt to plug. “We could look into this, but there is considerable concentration in this space,” said Mazaud. “We have made some good progress in the UK without this.” Indeed, SG CIB has been involved in book running or underwriting rights issues or convertibles for UK-based corporates.
SG CIB's net revenues were €1.28bn in the second quarter 2009, compared with €655m in the second quarter of 2008. Gains were led by big improvements in fixed income, commodities and currencies, equities and financing and advisory businesses. But it made an operating loss of €104m, compared with a loss of €359m over the same period last year – mainly, it insisted, due to various one-off provisions and write-downs relating to CDS positions and a tightening of credit spreads. Nonetheless, the underlying picture for SG CIB is healthy, promising growth.
On the mend
At Calyon, owned by Credit Agricole, the signs indicate a positive response to an earlier restructuring programme, and to improving market conditions. It slashed costs by 10%, downsized its operations and lowered its risk profile, for example reducing its exposure to exotic derivatives.
Calyon has fallen back on its three core activities: structured finance and commercial banking; brokerage; and fixed income and forex. At the time there was concern that these measures would suffocate growth potential. Yet it seems the investment banking business is stabilising and it is confident of making sustainable profits going forward. In the three months ended June 30, Calyon narrowed its loss to €87m from €855m a year earlier – a combination of costs relating to discontinued activities and write-downs on derivatives keeping the unit in the red.
Natixis, majority owned by BPCE and recently formed from the merger of Banque Populaire and Caisse d'Epargne, has been the hardest hit of the French investment banks by financial turbulence. But in late August the struggling bank was given a major boost when BPCE agreed to provide a safety net for €35bn worth of its toxic assets. The move represents a major step in its rehabilitation, according to analysts, some of whom don’t rule out the need for a further rescue in the future. After five straight quarters of losses it could return to profit as early as Q3, according to Francois Perol, BPCE’s chief executive.
During Q2 2009 Natixis reported a loss of €883m, compared with a deficit of €1.017bn the same time a year ago.