Albania hopes to be third-time lucky in selling its biggest bank

TIRANA (Reuters) – The head of Albania’s Savings Bank says he expects both Hungary’s OTP and Austria’s Raiffeisen to bid for all of its shares, voicing hope that the country would at last sell off its largest bank. In the third privatization attempt in as many years, manager Ardian Kamberi says it was a success his bank has attracted two «serious» players. Two earlier attempts failed because of tepid international interest and internal political instability. «The previous failures made it harder to re-open the sale procedure, but I can say now it is a success. Both banks have expressed maximum interest,» Kamberi told Reuters. «The bank is practically privatized,» he said. Raiffeisen and OTP, which have reviewed the Savings Bank’s books as part of their «due diligence» inquiries, are expected to make their offers to the Finance Ministry on December 12, he said. Albania aims to sell between 35 and 100 percent of the shares. «They have said that they do not intend to share the bank with others. Their offer is expected to include 100 percent of the shares,» Kamberi said. The Savings Bank, with assets of $1.6 billion, deposits of $1.4 billion and a 75 percent share of the local market, is the most important financial institution in Albania, impoverished and still struggling to recover from decades of communism. OTP is looking to raise its central European profile, having recently expanded into Bulgaria and Slovakia. Raiffeisen is also present in the Balkan region, for example in Bosnia and Serbia as well as nearby Kosovo. Albanian authorities in October gave the go-ahead for OTP, Hungary’s biggest commercial bank, and Raiffeisen to proceed with the tender process. Kamberi said both Raiffeisen and the OTP would bring not just cash but modern banking experience, technology and credibility. He said the sale price would be «irrelevant» compared to the privatization’s economic impact. «They will bring more investors and firms and companies which are their clients. They will bring Albania’s banking system closer to Europe with their experience and technology,» Kamberi said. The government failed to sell the Savings Bank in 2001 and again in 2002, blaming the lack of interest on depressed international markets and domestic political instability. The Savings Bank had shareholder equity of $39 million at the end of last year, according to the tender invitation. The bank said it had a clean balance sheet with no bad loans, while its 2002 return on equity was 39 percent. If the sale were to fail again, up to 49 percent of the shares would be offered to institutional investors like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development or the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation.