Russia's Sberbank u-turns on Poland as priority

By bne IntelliNews June 5, 2012

Tim Gosling in Prague -

Poland is no longer a top target for an acquisition or entry for Russian state giant Sberbank, CEO German Gref claimed in an interview published on June 1. The reasons behind the sudden u-turn may be myriad.

Whether driven by resistance to a large acquisition from Warsaw, signs of a slowdown in the Polish economy, a lack of takeover targets, or a pullback to a more conservative expansion strategy in the face of the resumed crisis across Europe on Sberbank's part, the announcement is at odds with what the Russian bank has been saying for months.

Sberbank officials have been clear since the bank bought into nine CEE markets earlier this year through its acquisition of Volksbank that they saw Poland and Turkey as top priorities. However, Gref said that the latter is now its sole top target, and that that the Russian bank will not be entering Poland's banking sector any time soon.

"Turkey is our number-one priority. We do not plan to go any further. Poland - yes - but not in the near future," Gref said in an interview with Russian daily RBK.

Sberbank is reportedly set to sign a deal to buy Denizbank, Turkey's sixth-biggest private bank, from struggling Belgian group Dexia for around €3bn - or around 1.5 x book value - any day now, and Sberbank officials are clearly suggesting that the size of the deal is the most likely reason for the sudden change of heart - one that most analysts will be happy to see.

Indeed, Gref's claim reiterates a statement from Sberbank CFO Anton Karamzin on May 29, in which he said: "We would have no serious interest in Eastern Europe (if the Denizbank deal happens). We may still look at possibilities arising in Poland but it won't be our hot priority," he told Reuters.

However, Karamzin was also keen to stress that whilst the Denizbank deal would be Sberbank's biggest ever purchase, he also insisted that it will affect tier-1 capital by no more than 1%. That should still ensure a tier-1 ratio of over 10% following the purchase, suggesting that the size of the Denizbank acquisition, on its own, would be so steep as to put the Russian giant out of the picture for any Polish deals.

Indeed, there are other barriers to Poland. For one thing, reports suggest Warsaw has made it abundantly clear that the increasingly state-dominated Russian banking sector is not welcome to make a major acquisition. The Polish state security services even complained to the press late last year that their Russian counterparts were busy preparing a takeover of the sector by wineing and dining officials from the financial regulator.

At the same time, there are few potential targets. Several M&A deals for major Polish banks have gone through in the last year or so, most notably the sale of Bank Zachodni WBK and Kredyt to Spain's Santander. Millennium Bank, owned by Portugal's BCP was thought to be next on the block, but the parent pulled back from selling following restructuring, and it is thought unlikely that any other major assets will come to market for the meantime.

Sberbank was reportedly sniffing around both Kredyt and Millenium, but lost out to its Western European rival. Speculation has also linked the Russian bank to interest in BRE, but parent Commerzbank is thought unlikely to sell. An acquisition of recent start-up Alior was also said to be on the cards, which would be in line with declarations apparently made by Sberbank to Polish officials on the sidelines of Davor in March that it is not seeking a major asset. However, whether such a small bank would suit Sberbank's ambition and self-image is another question.

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