ECONOMY

HSBC aims for Balkans

LONDON – Europe’s biggest bank HSBC Holdings Plc plans to aggressively grow in Greece and the Balkans and may do so by adding to the recent spate of big acquisitions in the region, its new head of Greece said. «I think there’s still definitely room for more consolidation,» Matthew Bosrock, chief executive for HSBC Greece since last month, told Reuters in an interview yesterday. «We absolutely are going to grow and we have a plan how to do that, but you have to be aware of other opportunities that present themselves. So part of my job is to make sure I identify and analyze opportunities beyond organic growth,» he added. Takeover activity stepped up this year as Credit Agricole followed its French rival Societe Generale into Greece by snapping up Emporiki, the country’s fourth-biggest lender, for 3.3 billion euros ($4.2 billion), which some analysts said showed valuations were now too high. Bosrock did not rule out a big purchase, but said HSBC’s global outlook meant a deal had to be more attractive than purchases in Asia or Latin America, so price would be key. He said it was unlikely valuations would get cheaper in the next five years, however, given Greece’s growth prospects and with outside banks keen to tap an economy growing faster than other European countries. «A lot of the success of the Greek market is reflected in the prices,» he said. «You could argue that if you haven’t made an investment in that part of the world you’re a bit late, but in five years you’ll just be a bit later.» Part of Greece’s attraction is its proximity to the Balkans and when HSBC appointed Bosrock it gave the American a mandate to aggressively grow in Greece and neighboring countries. «I don’t think you can have a Greek growth strategy without seeing it as a gateway for the Balkans,» Bosrock said, adding it was becoming the natural hub for the region. Greece’s big five banks have been among the first to move into the underdeveloped markets of Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), which potentially offer higher growth. HSBC’s first branch in Greece opened in 1981 and it now has 22 branches in and around Athens, helped by the purchase of Barclays’s Greek chain five years ago. Its wholesale banking business there includes corporate and investment banking, treasury and capital markets and shipping services, but growth will mainly come from retail, where Bosrock said its market share is probably under 5 percent. He said the bank is «sweating its assets better» than rivals, but it needs to add bulk and he expects to at least double the number of branches. Greece’s economy has grown at about 4 percent in each of the last four years, which is expected to continue this year and next, outpacing the rest of the eurozone. Bosrock said the country is also underbanked and consumers are underleveraged, so loan growth should remain strong.