ECONOMY

Changing face of Greek banking

This summer is expected to be an exciting one for the banking sector, starting with the race for the acquisition of Emporiki Bank in which further developments are anticipated. If no new bidder emerges apart from France’s Credit Agricole (CA) and Bank of Cyprus, in about a month’s time, we should know the winner. The two bids may be improved up to July 25, especially CA’s, which is valued at less. Whoever is the victor, it is certain that the landscape of the Greek banking sector will be significantly different in a few months. The changes are ongoing, not always via major moves such as for Emporiki, but also through developments that go largely unnoticed. For example, there is the start of procedures for the triple merger of Egnatia Bank, Marfin and Cyprus-based Laiki’s Greek subsidiary. The merger, expected to be completed in the first months of next year, will suddenly create a new midsized bank with 140 branches, deposits of 6.2 billion euros and loans totaling about 5.8 billion, translating into market shares of 4 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively. Citibank, meanwhile, has announced plans to increase its number of branches from 63 to 100. For the time being, it is reasonable to see a strong interest in Emporiki, the country’s fourth-largest bank. CA’s bid has the advantage of being in cash (23.50 euros per share) but the disadvantage of being low. Bank of Cyprus’s bid is more complex and more interesting (3.25 shares of its own for every share of Emporiki plus 6 euros). But just when everyone thought that this was a straight contest, the next twist came. Piraeus Bank started raising its stake in Bank of Cyprus, becoming its largest shareholder, at around 9 percent. This has now stopped but the contest seems to be going on behind the scenes. Perhaps the contest is not among the banks but among their management, which are more susceptible to changes in the mood and preferences of investors. That is why they are struggling hard to attract powerful shareholders. Banks are the most important sector of the Greek economy and it is not surprising that they draw a great deal of criticism from their clients, be it over interest rates or various charges. It is no coincidence that this is the only sector without any strong foreign presence, although it is also the most outward-looking. Businessmen in other sectors usually hope for the appearance of some generous foreign white knight to buy them out. With the exception of the merchant marine, which is outward-looking by definition, banks are the sector from which the modernization of the economy began and in which new ideas are tested, from business organization and computerization to labor relations and aggressive buyouts.