Netherlands divided over besieged lender’s future

Even before disconsolate ABN Amro employees filed away from a canalside courthouse on Thursday, stunned by a ruling barring their bank from selling its US subsidiary without shareholder approval, it was clear that the affair had polarised opinion in the Netherlands.

Some of the world’s biggest banks are locked in a titanic struggle over the destiny of the Dutch lender. But beyond the boardrooms, the saga has set worker against shareholder and politician against employer.

Talk shows have been block-booked by guests voicing anguish. Trade unions have warned of massive redundancies, senior government advisers have called for curbs on shareholder influence, and the country’s employers’ leader fears economic meltdown.

Much of the anger is aimed squarely at investors. Fred Polhout, chairman of the FNV union, said: “Shareholders are seizing power to fill their pockets.”

The court ruling unleashed a “horror scenario”, he said, whereby ABN would be bought by a consortium of Royal Bank of Scotland, Santander and Fortis that would slash jobs. Unions, muttering darkly about possible industrial action, back a merger with British bank Barclays. That would cost 23,600 jobs, but according to Rijkman Groenink, ABN’s chief executive, “they will mainly be in England”.

Saskia Scholten, from ABN’s workers council, told media: “I am very concerned about the consequences for the bank and its employees.” Echoing Mr Groenink’s court outburst a few days earlier, she added: “The bank has become a toy of shareholders.” Under Dutch law, companies must be run in the interests of all stakeholders, not just investors.

A few days earlier Bernard Wientjes, chairman of VNO-NCW, the Dutch employers’ federation, set the tone when he warned that the Dutch economy would be damaged if ABN was bought and broken up.

Wouter Bos, the finance minister who will ultimately have to approve who buys ABN, waded in to remind Mr Wientjes that ABN Amro had put itself up for sale before The Children’s Investment Fund, a UK activist hedge fund, wrote to the bank demanding it consider that option.

Mr Bos stopped short of blaming ABN. Others have not hesitated, however, to criticise. Erik van der Struijs, business editor of Algemeen Dagblad newspaper, wrote on Friday: “People can wag their fingers disapprovingly at shareholders but it is ABN Amro management that is in the wrong.”

Paul Tang, a member of parliament for the social democrat PvdA, agreed: “The failed strategy of Rijkman Groenink and the failed oversight of the supervisory board is the problem.” Peter Paul de Vries, director of VEB, the shareholder group whose petition to freeze the LaSalle sale was upheld in court, has called for Mr Groenink's resignation.

The government has been careful to steer clear of controversy. Mr Bos is not giving interviews. However, senior civil servants confided that many in The Hague are concerned at the implications of a surge in nationalist sentiment.

In 2004 the Dutch tore down many of the protective barriers that had restricted shareholder influence and earned the Netherlands a reputation as a corporate governance backwater.

Alexander Rinnooy Kan, a former ING executive who now heads SER, the government’s main economic policy advisory body, suggested the rules should be tightened again because the reforms gave shareholders too much power.

A notable absentee in this debate is Nout Wellink, Dutch Central Bank president. Having twice caused controversy by appearing to voice protectionist sentiments, the order has gone out to Mr Wellink to say nothing.

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