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Corporate treasurers: Inside the new in-house banks.

Suddenly corporate treasurers are radically changing their attitudes. They want their departments to generate profits, instead of being cost centres. The most advanced are even setting up their own banks. And the Japanese are developing their new art of zaiteku. But all this involves dangers.

By Matthew Crabbe

An elite band of the world's most sophisticated company treasurers and financial officers have formed a new ambition to run banks of their own.

Why be content, these executives have asked themselves, with running a dully conventional corporate treasury, when it's possible to make substantial profits for the company and become a hero in the process? And by establishing in-house banks or similar vehicles, a number of them are on their way to that goal.

The undisputed leader of this movement is physicist-turned-financial officer John Browne, group treasurer of British Petroleum and chief executive of BP Finance International. This new entity - an almost fullyfledged merchant bank inside the oil company - is expected to report first-year profits of around [British pound] 30 million next month. Among Browne's coups is a landmark $6.5 billion facility arranged by BP Finance last autumn with a minimum of assistance from outside advisers.

But as Browne's fame grows - he is already a celebrated figure in London - so do the questions surrounding operations such as his. Should an industrial corporation stick to its knitting and stay away from the hidden dangers of trading in the financial markets? Will the establishment of an inhouse bank permanently damage relationships with traditional banks, to the detriment of the corporation'? Some treasurers, fearful of the consequences, have stayed well away from do-it-yourself banking.

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