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Foreigners carve up Poland’s banks

The endgame being played out in the Polish banking sector is messy and aggressive and cuts to the heart of the attractions and the problems faced by strategic and portfolio investors in this emerging European market. The protagonists include three of the world’s powerhouse banks: Citibank, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank. Minority shareholder rights have been ignored in the scramble for market position. Ian Dawson reports on the fight for the last seats at the top table

The Polish authorities have long taken a bold approach to restructuring the banking sector - a major national liability in the early 1990s with most (former state) banks brim full of abysmal, underperforming loans to abysmal, underperforming corporates.

Foreign banks seeking a presence were told to take over these banks one-by-one to gain a local banking licence. The great Polish banking sell-off, which started in 1994, has continued apace ever since. But what seemed to be an endless stream of opportunities has in the past few months dried up. The seats in this bankers' version of musical chairs, with so many now occupied, suddenly got scarce.

How were players of the calibre of Commerzbank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank left scrapping for a seat? Partly because of a failure to act when there were more opportunities. During 1999 both Commerzbank and Deutsche Bank finally started to develop aggressive local plans while at the same time Citibank walked away from a major commitment to Pekao. "These guys simply overslept," says Martin Nejedly, Wood&Co's bank analyst in Warsaw. "They woke up and found that there was hardly anything left."

The first serious moves in today's endgame were initiated in mid-1999 when a proposed merger between BRE and Bank Handlowy was announced - clearly driven by Commerzbank, a 49% shareholder in BRE.

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