Georges Pauget has just published his first popular book on banking. Dedicated to his four-year-old granddaughter Chloe, the book is designed to show her that a banker is not merely the person that feeds the cash dispensing machine with crisp notes.
It also has a broader purpose. Banking these days has become one of the most vilified occupations, even more than journalism, politics and the legal profession. The very title of Mr Pauget’s book – Should we burn the bankers? – could hardly be more explicit and provocative. After all, the chief executive of Crédit Agricole, France’s second largest bank, is simply asking whether the image and reputation of banking has reverted to the middle ages when – in France at least – bankers were often regarded as evil sorcerers and sometimes, like witches, burnt at the stake.
The book ultimately comes to the defence of the banking profession, arguing that it was not only the bankers but a series of other political and regulatory agents that allowed the global financial crisis to erupt last year. He also reaches some sensible conclusions over the way the industry should evolve – not least calling for a split between banking and brokerage.
But probably the most interesting thing about the book is the timing of its publication. If anyone has been a victim of a witch hunt inside the French farmers’ bank it is Mr Pauget. On Tuesday, Crédit Agricole will confirm that Mr Pauget will be stepping down as chief executive sooner than expected in March next year to be replaced by Jean-Paul Chifflet, one of the bank’s powerful local barons from Lyon who has long angled for the job.
About 18 months ago, Mr Chifflet was regarded as one of the leaders of an internal campaign to topple Mr Pauget at a time when the bank was under intense stress as a result of a combination of problems including a rogue trading scandal at its Calyon investment bank’s New York operations and hefty subprime writedowns.
Mr Pauget, a former paratrooper and academic, took charge of the bank in 2005. His mission was to shore up the global image and reach of an institution that still remains rooted in rural France. As everybody knows, farmers are a pretty conservative lot. He successfully expanded the bank’s retailing activities in Italy but his acquisition of Emporiki bank in Greece has proved extremely costly and disappointing. So too a 20 per cent stake in Spain’s Bankinter that set the so-called French “green bank” on a collision course with the Botin Spanish banking dynasty.
By issuing an ultimatum to his feuding local barons and threatening to resign, Mr Pauget seemed to have managed to regain the upper hand. Since the failed coup of the local barons, Mr Pauget has restructured the bank and especially Calyon. He has reinforced the bank’s ties with Société Générale by forging a joint asset management venture with his French peer. All in all, the group appears to be emerging out of the crisis and presumably Mr Pauget felt he had accomplished his mission and it was time to go.
Perhaps too he has finally grown tired of the permanent infighting at the “green bank”. He was certainly not amused by recent unsubstantiated leaks in the press that Crédit Agricole was considering merging with Société Générale and the Groupama mutual insurance group to create a new giant financial services conglomerate.
So Mr Pauget will soon be handing over the baton to his old rival from Lyon, but that does not mean the 62-year-old banker has any intention of retiring.
He is already preparing a new book on post-crisis banking. He could also be tempted to join another bank and challenge, from the outside this time, his old rural inquisitors.
It must be frustrating for Generali, the Italian insurer, to see French rival Axa announce on Monday that it was raising €2bn ($3bn) in fresh capital to finance acquisition opportunities in the latest wave of post-crisis consolidation in the sector.
Generali probably weathered the crisis better than its two larger European peers – Allianz and Axa – but remains shackled by its largest shareholder, Mediobanca. The Milan bank owns about 15 per cent of Generali and remains notoriously wary of being diluted in what has long been its prime asset. Last year, Generali’s veteran chairman Antoine Bernheim apparently persuaded Libya’s sovereign wealth fund to invest in a big stake that would have raised about €6bn for the Italian insurer. That would have provided a healthy war chest. But the Generali board blocked the deal because Mediobanca would have found it difficult to maintain their stake and, more importantly, influence.
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