Wellink feels heat of ABN spotlight

Nout Wellink has courted more controversy in the last 10 weeks than in his previous (almost) 10 years as president of the Dutch central bank.

Accustomed to pleading for the media’s attention when publishing his worthy if sometimes dull annual assessment of the Dutch economy, the 63-year-old banker now cannot seem to open his mouth without causing a stir.

Since remarking in a Dutch newspaper interview in late February that demands by The Children’s Investment Fund, an activist shareholder, for the break-up of ABN Amro were “a bridge too far”, Mr Wellink has been struggling to explain himself.

He is keenly aware that his every utterance is likely to set the tone for a takeover that is without precedent and could establish a new benchmark for banking regulators around the world.

Last week Mr Wellink told the Financial Times that his comments to Dutch newspaper NRC had been taken out of context and that he had not been defending national interests.

A quiet, unassuming man, who learned his trade at the ministry of finance before joining the central bank in 1982, he was particularly hurt by comparisons to Antonio Fazio.

The brash Italian central bank governor was forced to resign after being embroiled in allegations that he favoured a domestic suitor over ABN in the tussle for Antonveneta, Italy's ninth-largest lender.

Determined to demonstrate his even-handedness, Mr Wellink even told the FT he would not oppose the break-up of ABN Amro if a “solid bank” came forward with such a proposal.

His position was put to the test a few days later when a consortium including Royal Bank of Scotland, Santander and Fortis emerged with exactly such a plan.

After an informal meeting with the chief executive of Fortis, Mr Wellink issued a statement on Wednesday warning that the plan entailed “risks and complications” that concerned the central bank.

While few observers disagreed with the sentiments of the statement, the decision to intervene before the consortium had even met ABN Amro or set out its proposals in detail raised eyebrows among bankers and rival regulators.

Intervention at such an early stage opens up Mr Wellink to the accusation that his main motivation is to defend a Dutch institution – or to preserve the Dutch central bank’s influence.

Senior officials defended their boss, saying he had been entirely consistent, and was neither seeking to defend ABN from a break-up nor advocating what course it should follow.

Rather, in pointing to issues raised by the consortium’s approach, Mr Wellink was flagging concerns over the impact on the financial stability of an institution that forms part of a wider system.

His motivation in February when he warned of TCI’s plan, was no different, people familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.

That remark referred to his concerns about financially-driven buyers who wanted all the proceeds from a sale to go to shareholders, regardless of wider considerations.

Now he is confronted with a plan by three banks, which in his view, greatly increases risks.

Mr Wellink is understood to know enough of the trio’s plans to worry about breaking-up an entity that must continue to function through what he fears would be a time-consuming and complex process.

While Mr Wellink is too modest to say so himself, a person who knows him suggested another motive for his recent remarks: “He is passionate about his job. He feels a duty to ensure financial stability.”

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