The big six branch out for growth
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The big six branch out for growth

Canada's six largest banks dominate their home market, so it's hardly surprising they are looking abroad for growth opportunities. But their expansion strategies could hardly be more different: while Nova Scotia is buying up Latin American banks, CIBC is becoming a player on Wall Street and Toronto Dominion is cultivating a niche as a discount broker. But what would really allow Canadian banks to become serious global players would be if the government were to allow them to merge. Richard Blackwell reports.

Canada's six biggest banks, entrenched as the dominant players in their home market, desperately want to make their presence felt elsewhere on the planet.

The six banks are often accused of holding an oligopoly within Canada's close-knit financial system. While that may be an exaggeration, they do hold about 60% of personal deposits, control just under half the mortgage business, and manage about a quarter of mutual-fund assets.

The six are led by Royal Bank of Canada, with total corporate assets of C$246 billion (US$177 billion) at July 31, a network of 1,500 branches and 51,000 employees. A close second is Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) with assets of C$240 billion. Bank of Montreal, Bank of Nova Scotia and Toronto Dominion Bank fall third, fourth and fifth. National Bank of Canada is the smallest of the so-called big six, with assets of C$61 billion.

The Canadian banks are also highly profitable. After taking huge write-offs as a result of bad loans in Latin America in the mid-1980s, and another hit from soured real-estate lending in the early 1990s, they have recovered dramatically in the past few years and are well on their way to reporting record cumulative profits of more than C$7 billion in the fiscal year that ends on October 31.

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