'Danger, opportunity' in crisis
PARIS -- Inside the headquarters of Societe Generale, located in a suburb of Paris, Gilbert Pla, the chief executive officer for Asia, refers to the Chinese word for crisis, which is written using a combination of the characters ''danger'' and ''opportunity''.
It is this Chinese approach to crisis that Pla says Societe Generale is pursuing in its Asian interests, which are presently being rocked by the financial and foreign exchange instability. The crisis in Asia, in spite of the dangerous outlook, also provides the opportunity for the French bank to expand its presence, which would not have been possible during normal market conditions.
''We're holding a contrarian approach,'' says Pla. ''With this crisis going on, not many people are looking at the opportunities.''
Societe Generale recently acquired the asset management arm of Yamaichi, the fifth largest in Japan. The French bank, which has had a longstanding relationship with Bangkok Bank, has also built up its stake in Asia Credit Plc, the Thai bank's finance and securities subsidiary, raising its interest from 31 per cent to a controlling 51 per cent.
''If there was no crisis in Thailand, we would not have had the opportunity of buying into Asia Credit with a majority stake. This was unthinkable last year,'' he said.
In talks with Societe Generale, Chatri Sophonpanich, the executive chairman of Bangkok Bank, said the conditions were set that following the French bank injecting fresh capital into Asia Credit, it should develop it into a super finance company or a bank; and that Bangkok Bank should also have a say in the new management with Societe Generale holding more than 50 per cent in the Thai business.
Societe Generale has agreed to plough Bt7.5 billion into Asia Credit, an amount that will be enough to maintain a majority control. The name of the company will then be changed to SG Asia Credit Plc. Bangkok Bank will continue to hold a 31 per cent in the firm, while Chatri will hold 5 per cent.
''We strongly believe Thailand has great potential. We'll bring technical knowledge and expertise to the Thai market,'' Pla said.
SG Asia Credit will be developed into a super finance house. Its only restriction for the time being is that it can't provide cheque books for its customers. However, Pla says SG Asia Credit is not in the business of retail banking but will focus on wholesale banking to assist its corporate customers.
Societe Generale has made a number of mergers and acquisitions to expand its financial services, including the acquisition of Crosby Securities before changing its name to Soc-Gen Crosby, and its purchase of a securities firm in Indonesia, along with other acquisitions in Taiwan and South Korea.
''These acquisitions have occupied most of our time over the past few months,'' Pla said.
Meanwhile, at the meeting of the board of directors of Societe Generale on June 24, Daniel Bouton, the chairman and CEO, commented on the developments in the group's business during the first half of 1998. The board also reviewed recent developments in the crisis in Southeast Asia, the integration of recently-acquired companies and the outlook for the group's interim results.
In his presentation of the main trends in the group's activities during the first half-year, Bouton indicated all divisions had shown an improved performance.
* Retail banking, operated in France through the Societe Generale and Credit du Nord networks and specialised subsidiaries, recorded a growth in activity during the first half of 1998, which was in line with the trend seen in the 1997 financial year.
Over the first five months of 1998:
* Outstanding loans rose by 2.4 per cent driven, as in 1997, by loans to individual customers (plus-7 per cent).
* Total deposits rose by 9 per cent, reflecting the same trend as in 1997, there was a plus-9 per cent growth in sight deposits, plus-13 per cent in regulated savings accounts and a 17 per cent fall in time deposits.
* Commissions also recorded a substantial increase, due to a higher volume of activity.
These strong commercial performances, combined with tight control of operating expenses, should produce a further rise in retail banking gross operating income.
* The wholesale and investment banking division is showing very strong growth compared to the same period in 1997 notably due to the excellent results of capital market activities, which have benefitted from favourable market conditions and high transaction volumes.
* Asset management and private banking should also record a substantial gross operating income increase, following the sharp rise in assets under management (900 billion French francs against 600 billion francs a year earlier).
Outlook on results
* The group's 1998 interim results will be approved by the board of directors on Sept 9. The accounts of Yamaichi, Barr Devlin and Hambros will be fully consolidated, while Cowen will only be consolidated in the second half of the financial year.
* On the basis of initial estimates, the CEO indicated the group's interim gross operating income should show a noticeable improvement on the same period in 1997, and should confirm the continuing improvement in the group's core profitability.
* Daniel Bouton also indicated the group had realised significant capital gains during the first half of the year. They resulted both from the disposal of non-strategic subsidiaries (notably SG2) and from the continuing reduction in the industrial equity portfolio which benefitted from financial operations carried out during the period (notably, the takeover bid for AGF).
The preliminary conclusions of the risk review highlight the following points:
* A fall in domestic risk provisioning requirements, reflecting the improvement in the financial situation of small and medium-sized companies due to an improvement in the French economy.
* Provisioning requirements for commitments outside France, excluding Asia, should, as in 1997, be limited.
With respect to the five sensitive countries in Asia (Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and South Korea) the group intends to reinforce substantially the results of the first half its risk coverage, notably to take into account the deterioration of Indonesia's economic and financial situation during the period.
BY THANONG KHANTHONG