NBG stocks drop over fears of State’s stake disposal

National Bank of Greece yesterday saw its share slide by 3.64 percent following an apparent disagreement between its chairman and the government over the appropriate timescale for the State’s disposal of its stake. Theodoros Karatzas said he had discussed with Finance Minister Nikos Christodoulakis the possibility of the State cutting its share, but emphasized that the timing was crucial. «It [a reduced state role in National Bank] is part of the general plan but not now because of the inappropriate market conditions,» he said. The comments sent National Bank’s stock dropping to 20.62 euros as investors were spooked by a possible stock overhang. The jittery response echoed a similar reaction to previous announcements of the government’s plans to divest its stakes in telecoms operator OTE and lottery games operator OPAP, both of which saw their shares plunge as a result of the news. The State holds 12.2 percent outright of National Bank via a 6.7-percent stake owned by DEKA, the state portfolio management company, and 5.5 percent held by the Postal Savings Bank. It also indirectly controls 27.7 percent. Analysts said Karatzas’s comments indicated disagreement between banker and minister over a suitable time frame for selling the State’s equity in the bank. «This is without precedent,» said an analyst, referring to Karatzas’s decision to voice his opinion openly instead of maintaining a discreet silence. «It shows conflict between the bank and the State on when and how the latter will sell its holding.» Christodoulakis first unveiled plans to cut the State’s stake in National Bank and Commercial Bank in March, setting off the alarm bell among investors. Karatzas’s concerns over negative investor sentiment to a stock overhang comes as National Bank finds itself underperforming the market. Its share has lost 22.8 percent of its value since the beginning of the year compared with a 15.4-percent decline in the benchmark index. The share value of the five major banks is down by 24 percent. With a declining share price and less-than-rosy first-quarter profits, analysts said putting more stocks on the market now could put further downward pressure on the bank’s share price, despite the long-term benefit of the move. «Karatzas could be sending a message to the government to hold off its divestment plans or to gradually bring it onto the market,» said one analyst. It remains to be seen whether the message will be heard. Selling a 6.7-percent stake could raise an estimated 315 million euros for state coffers. Faced with the need to find funding for the social security system and to bring down public debt, the government has accelerated its divestment program, surprising the market with a rapid sale of an OTE stake last week. OPAP is due to follow. National Bank could be next in line, regardless of what Karatzas says.