Bank sales brewing

Developments are brewing in the banking sector, with sources saying that a planned sale by the State of its 10 percent stake in the country’s largest bank, the National Bank of Greece, is drawing interest abroad. Negotiations with international investors are said to be reaching fruition and the package is expected to go on sale within the next two months. Also, Credit Agricole does not seem interested in extending its 11 percent stake in Commercial Bank by buying another 9.6 percent that the State plans to sell. But sources said the French bank would like to underwrite part of the sale of these shares on the international market. The government wants these two sales completed by winter, to allow the revenue to be registered in the current budgetary year. But the sales depend on continued stability in international markets. If the sales cannot go ahead, then the banks may resort to selling shares for a specific period so the State can draw the revenues it needs and then, if the foreign investors do not want to keep the shares, the State will buy them back. In October 2000, Credit Agricole, which holds 11 percent of Commercial Bank, renewed its agreement with Commercial until early 2008. Thus if the French bank pulls out, Commercial will have first choice in buying the stock at the original purchase price. If the agreement is violated, the two partners can dissolve the agreement and Credit Agricole would have the right to sell its stake at current prices. Credit Agricole must agree to a third party buying the State’s 9.6 percent stake if this were to give that party more than 10 percent control in Commercial, under the agreement. Credit Agricole is demanding that the Greek State promise to solve the thorny problem of social security funds of all bank employees before it buys a further stake in Commercial. But it appears that National Economy Minister Nikos Christodoulakis would rather not touch this issue at all, because of the burden this would add to the budget. Finance Ministry sources said that if Credit Agricole is not interested, the 6.9 percent stake could be sold abroad through book building, the same procedure that is most likely to be used for National’s 10 percent stake. The same sources said Credit Agricole would be invited to take part in the book building. The stock sales might provide revenue, but they will not constitute structural changes as the State will retain a strong role in the two banks.