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Top Chinese bank targets Europe

By Patrick Jenkins and Simon Rabinovitch, FT.com
updated 8:08 PM EDT, Sun September 16, 2012
People walk past an advertising for China Construction Bank in Hong Kong.
People walk past an advertising for China Construction Bank in Hong Kong.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • One of China's biggest banks is planning to make the country's biggest foreign bank acquisition
  • Chairman: China Construction Bank could spend as much as $15B for "the right choice"
  • Wang would not name targets but UK, Germany or France banks are attractive
  • Analysts have predicted that Chinese groups could swoop on comparatively cheap western rivals.

(CNN) -- One of China's biggest banks is planning to make the country's biggest foreign bank acquisition to date and has set its sights on potential targets in Europe.

China Construction Bank, the second-ranked Chinese bank by assets after Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, could spend as much as $15bn on a deal, according to Wang Hongzhang, the group's chairman.

"Some of the banks in Europe have been put up for sale," Mr Wang told the Financial Times in an interview. "Now we are looking for the right choice."

He said CCB had Rmb100bn ($15.8bn) of capital available to acquire a whole bank or, at a minimum, to buy a stake of 30-50 per cent in a larger entity.

Mr Wang, who praised the progress of European policymakers in addressing the eurozone crisis, would not be drawn on individual names but said an investment in the UK, Germany or France would be most attractive.

He valued the partnership agreement CCB has with Bank of America, which owns a 1 per cent stake in the Chinese bank, but did not plan to support it with a shareholding.

Any acquisition would have to have a reasonable international presence, Mr Wang added, rather than just a single-country domestic focus. An internationally minded acquisition target would pose fewer "cultural challenges", he said.

Investment bankers believe banks that were part-nationalised amid the financial crisis could make appealing targets.

RBS, 82 per cent owned by the British government, has a market capitalisation of £17bn. Commerzbank, the German bank that is 25 per cent government-owned, is worth barely €9bn.

Analysts and deal bankers have long predicted that Chinese groups, which retain relatively high market valuations, could swoop on comparatively cheap western rivals. But so far there has been little activity.

ICBC's $5.5bn acquisition of a 20 per cent stake in South Africa's Standard Bank has been the biggest deal to date.

The Chinese financial sector has been scarred by the few deals they have done abroad. China Investment Corp, the sovereign wealth fund, took big stakes in Morgan Stanley and Blackstone just before the global financial crisis savaged their share prices.

In Europe, China Development Bank has seen a big paper loss on its investment in Barclays, while Ping An, a life insurer, bought a stake in Fortis just before it ran into trouble and had to be split up.

With Europe's debt problems deepening over the past two years, Chinese regulators have advised the country's banks to keep a safe distance from European financial institutions.

At one point they were even told to avoid basic foreign exchange transactions with certain European counterparties because of the financial risks.

"In the past several years what happened to Chinese investors was not particularly encouraging," Victor Wang of Macquarie Securities said. "In my base case, I am not expecting any large-sized overseas acquisitions.

"But if they are talking about investing in a listed entity, it may look interesting from a long-term perspective because the asking price must be reasonable now."

Guo Shuqing, Wang Hongzhang's predecessor as chairman of CCB, insisted last year that price alone would not be enough of a reason to do a deal.

Mr Guo, who is now China's chief securities regulator, appealed for caution when looking at foreign banks: "Their shares have really fallen," he said at the time. "Just looking at the prices, it might seem a good deal. But it would not necessarily suit our development strategy."

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