Greek banks may be targets of acquisitions

Foreign investors control no less than 40 percent of the major Greek banks, either directly or via the stock market. This trend is attributed to factors such as the country’s geographical position, banks’ significant investment in the Balkans and the big profit margins in the domestic market. A few weeks ago the French group of Credit Agricole completed the acquisition of Emporiki Bank, Greece’s fourth-largest lender by assets. Earlier, Dubai Financial, a subsidiary of the Dubai Investment Group, had acquired a strategic stake in Marfin Bank. Such moves seem to be part of a worldwide surge of cross-border mergers and acquisitions, as global capital is after opportunities everywhere, even in Greece, which has traditionally been off the map of investors’ targets. A reason could be the Balkan region’s transformation. There is the vision of EU membership and the prospect of financial stability, a place where the area’s people can work together and end the tensions over national sovereignty that for years dogged the region. A new, largely untapped market is emerging with huge prospects for economic development. After Romania and Bulgaria, which will become EU members in January 2007, other states will follow suit. Consequently the geographical location of Greece, which until recently had been a serious disadvantage, is now a strong asset as this country has been an EU member for two-and-a-half decades and appears as the ideal springboard for further expansion in Southeast Europe. In addition to that, Greek banks have realized major investments in the Balkans. Therefore if any foreign bank acquires Alpha Bank, for instance, it will also obtain a big network of 267 branches across the Balkan countries. Similarly, if foreign investors bought out the National Bank of Greece they would also be buying in Turkey, following the recent acquisition of Finansbank by NBG. With EFG Eurobank excepted, where the Latsis group controls 40.8 percent of shares, all major banks are exposed to potential aggressive acquisition moves. The reason for that is the great dispersion of their shares. For example, no shareholder in Piraeus Bank controls more than 5 percent, while the Costopoulos family only owns 9 percent of Alpha Bank. NBG could also become an acquisition target, with rumors often focusing on this possibility. Apart from the theoretically «locked» stakes belonging to state funds, at least 75 percent of the bank’s shares are available for purchase at the Athens Stock Exchange. Local banks use the mechanism of buying their own shares as a protective shield against the risk of an aggressive acquisition. Such a move becomes a strong defense line for the management of banks: These shares can form the basis for the concentration of shareholders who are against the acquisition, and allow banks to maintain their capitalization at high levels, particularly in critical periods, so as to render very costly any acquisition effort.