ECONOMY

Shareholders OK Laiki merger with Marfin

Nicosia (Reuters) – Shareholders of Laiki, Cyprus’s second-largest bank, have approved a 2.44-billion-euro three-way merger with Greek banks Marfin and Egnatia with a stated focus on growth in Southeast European and Middle East markets. With a show of hands, shareholders also approved a change in the name of the group to Marfin Popular Bank. The group also planned to list its shares on the Athens and Dubai stock exchanges, company officials told an extraordinary general meeting in Nicosia. The group aims to list its shares on the Athens bourse in January 2007 and is expected to apply for a listing on the Dubai market within the first half of next year, they said. Marfin, a 14.2 percent stakeholder in Laiki, is 31.5 percent-owned by Dubai Financial, an investment fund. Andreas Vgenopoulos, CEO and vice chairman of Marfin, planned to head the new formation which would be based in Cyprus, he said. He also pledged to distribute «at least 50 percent» of the group’s profits in dividends to shareholders. He said he would not be getting a salary. In an all-share offer, Laiki is offering a total of 465.4 million new shares, valued at 3 Cyprus pounds (5.27 euros) each, to shareholders of the other two banks. The bank is offering 5.757 Laiki shares for each Marfin share and 1.209 for each Egnatia share. It has valued Marfin at 30 euros a share and Egnatia at 6.30 euros per share. In terms of expansion prospects, Vgenopoulos, also a member of the present Laiki board, said the new group would look at Southeast Europe, the Mediterranean basin, and some states in the Middle East. «We would aim at either small takeovers, or greenfield operations,» he said, using the English phrase to describe organic growth. He ruled out expansion in Turkey, with which Cyprus has been at loggerheads since a 1974 Turkish invasion in response to a brief Greek-inspired coup. Gaining a round of applause, he said: «There is no question of expanding into Turkey. I consider it incomprehensible to expand into a country where we still have differences.» Marfin appeared as a shareholder in Laiki in early 2006 after snapping up part of a 20 percent stake sold by Britain’s HSBC. There had been some acrimony over the proposed merger after it emerged that a former Laiki chairman, who departed from the bank last summer, opposed the deal and some questions were raised by a small group of shareholders regarding the valuations of the two Greek banks. Neocles Lyssadrou, present chairman of the Laiki Group, said the transformation was necessary because expansion prospects in its present form were limited. «Cyprus is a small country with a limited market where the group has almost exhausted its possibility of quantitative growth. Remaining introverted and limited to the narrow confines of Cyprus, or even of Greece, plus a presence in countries where there are Greek communities, could have led to stagnation,» he said.