Retail banking has become the basic field for growth but also for competition among Greek banks, particularly in the last two years when revenues from stock market operations have declined steeply, the top managers of the National Bank of Greece (NBG) said yesterday. During luncheon for the leaders of NBG’s 90 biggest retail customers, the bank’s governor, Theodoros Karadzas, and his deputy, Apostolos Tamvakakis, presented its strategy and growth targets in the retail banking sector, which is seen as an engine for growth in future. They also presented 2001 results in all branches of the sector. NBG disbursed 417 billion drachmas (1.22 billion euros) in housing loans last year, up 44.6 percent from 2000, while new consumer loans rose 42.5 percent to 247.2 billion drachmas (725 million euros). The respective outstanding parts of housing and consumer loans rose 24.7 percent to 1.572 billion (4.6 million euros) and 42 percent to 339.7 billion drachmas in 2001 (997 million euros). Provisions for bad debts represented only 2 percent of new loans, which is near the European Union average. NBG manages 1 million credit cards and 2.2 million debit cards while the total number of affiliated traders comes to more than 100,000 and annual turnover is estimated at more than 300 billion drachmas (880 million euros). The outstanding parts of credit card loans rose 54.4 percent to 288.7 billion drachmas (847 million euros) in 2001, bringing the total increase in the last three years to 207 percent. The bank plans to integrate the retail banking sector and expand loans to the self-employed and small and medium-sized enterprises, whose outstanding parts are now estimated at 220 billion drachmas. New merger interest? Less than a month after the collapse of the announced merger of the country’s two biggest banks, National and Alpha, the former is said to be rekindling an older interest in Piraeus Bank, fifth in terms of market capitalization. Although senior officials of the two banks would not confirm rumors, well-informed sources insist that the flirtation is for real, mediated by Piraeus’s approximately 10-percent shareholder, Vardis Vardinoyiannis. Nevertheless, the same sources insist that in the present phase, National is naturally treading a very cautious path before making any new moves. They note that conditions are not yet considered mature for the realization of a possible deal with Piraeus and that it would require meticulous planning and full agreement on the terms. National is generally said to be going all out to regain the momentum on issues frozen after the deal with Alpha was announced on October 31 last year. Current activities include negotiations for the acquisition of a London-based medium-sized investment bank which began last year and, according to sources, are expected to be completed soon. On the internal front, National is aiming to strengthen its dominant role in retail banking where Eurobank is emerging as a strong competitor. Results lower Current efforts by NBG management are said to reflect an anxiety to improve on last year’s results, which, according to sources, have shown a significant downturn since 2000. According to projections, profits from financial transactions are 120 billion drachmas (352 million euros), or 50 percent, lower, while lower commission revenue from stock market and mutual fund operations are estimated to have caused a 25-percent fall in total profits. She denied suggestions that a credit-card-sized health card – which would not have a photograph of the bearer – could herald a common EU identity card.