Fortis Gets EU11.2 Billion Rescue From Governments

Sept. 29 (Bloomberg) — Fortis, the largest Belgian financial-services firm, received an 11.2 billion-euro ($16.3 billion) rescue from Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg after investor confidence in the bank evaporated last week.

Belgium will buy 49 percent of Fortis’s Belgian banking unit for 4.7 billion euros, while the Netherlands will pay 4 billion euros for a similar stake in the Dutch banking business, the governments said in a statement late yesterday. Luxembourg will provide a 2.5 billion-euro loan convertible into 49 percent of Fortis’s banking division in that country.

Fortis is the largest European firm so far caught up in the global financial crisis that drove Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. into bankruptcy two weeks ago and prompted U.S. President George W. Bush to seek a $700 billion bank rescue package. Fortis dropped 35 percent last week in Brussels trading on concern the company would struggle to replenish capital depleted by the 24.2 billion- euro takeover of ABN Amro Holding NV units and credit writedowns.

“Confidence in Fortis needs to be restored,” said Corne van Zeijl, a senior portfolio manager at SNS Asset Management in Den Bosch, the Netherlands, who oversees about $1.1 billion and owns Fortis shares.

Fortis plans to sell its stake in ABN Amro’s consumer banking unit, though a buyer wasn’t identified. Fortis joined with Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc and Spain’s Banco Santander SA last year to buy Amsterdam-based ABN Amro for 72 billion euros, just as the U.S. subprime mortgage market collapsed.

Lippens Resigns

Fortis Chairman Maurice Lippens stepped down and will be replaced by someone from outside the company, Fortis said. The firm picked company insider Filip Dierckx to succeed Herman Verwilst as chief executive officer on Sept. 26, just three months after former CEO Jean-Paul Votron was pushed out.

Fortis, formed in the 1990 merger of the Dutch insurance company NV Amev, Belgian insurer AG Group and the Dutch bank VSB, angered investors on June 26 by scrapping the interim dividend and announcing plans to sell shares to help strengthen its finances.

“We’re buying power in the bank, getting more influence on the decisions that will be made, that’s what savers need in these times,” Dutch Finance Minister Wouter Bos told Dutch public television NOS. Bos said he couldn’t comment on who’ll buy the ABN Amro business.

The collapse of New York-based Lehman and the U.S. rescue of American International Group Inc. heightened concern about the global financial system and made it costlier for banks to raise funds. Seattle-based Washington Mutual Inc. was seized by regulators last week in the biggest U.S. bank failure in history.

Bradford & Bingley

Bradford & Bingley Plc, Britain’s biggest lender to landlords, may be taken over by another bank or nationalized today under a U.K. government-backed plan to protect 21 billion pounds ($39 billion) of customer deposits.

In the U.S., Bush and congressional leaders said yesterday in Washington that they had reached agreement on the rescue package, which is designed to revive moribund credit markets.

Fortis tried three days ago to assuage investor concerns by stating that its financial position was “solid,” and that it had identified banking and insurance businesses to sell worth as much as 10 billion euros. Fortis said it wouldn’t sell assets at fire- sale prices, and didn’t have an urgent need for funds.

The remarks, presented in an impromptu press conference by Verwilst and Dierckx, failed to stem the selling. The stock ended the day down 20 percent.

`Over-Leveraged’

“Markets thought that they were over-leveraged,” European Central Bank Governing Council member Nout Wellink said. “What’s happening in the U.S. is having an impact on the rest of the world. At the end of the day Fortis is a good bank,” said Wellink, who also heads the Dutch central bank.

Fortis has fallen 71 percent this year in Brussels, the second-worst performance among the 69 companies on the Bloomberg Europe Banks and Financial Services Index, cutting the lender’s market capitalization to 12.2 billion euros.

The company has about 3 billion euros of bonds maturing this year and needs to refinance an additional 7 billion euros next year, said Ivan Lathouders, an analyst at Banque Degroof SA in Brussels, in a report last week.

Short-Selling Restricted

Fortis reported a 49 percent decline in second-quarter profit on credit-related writedowns on Aug. 4. The banking business’s core Tier I capital ratio, an indicator of a bank’s ability to absorb losses, was 7.4 percent at the end of June, compared with Fortis’s own target of 6 percent.

The company’s structured credit portfolio, which includes collateralized debt obligations and U.S. mortgage-backed securities, amounted to 41.7 billion euros at the end of June. Fortis said Aug. 4 the pretax impact of the credit market turmoil on its earnings was 918 million euros in the first half.

Belgian and Dutch regulators restricted short-selling in the shares and derivatives of financial companies for three months last week to curtail a market rout. The rules require investors betting on a decline in stock prices to arrange to borrow the shares before selling them. The Belgian and Dutch regulators also requested investors to refrain from lending the securities.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martijn van der Starre in Amsterdam at vanderstarre@bloomberg.net; Meera Louis in Brussels at mlouis1@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: September 28, 2008 20:15 EDT
By Martijn van der Starre and Meera Louis

Source: Bloomberg

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