Sense of loss for Dutch as ABN tussle nears end

For the Royal Bank of Scotland-led consortium striving to buy ABN Amro, this week should mark a final stage in the biggest financial services deal.

The €71bn ($101bn) offer for the Dutch lender is due to close and, if the trio of banks completes its mammoth fundraising effort, it is expected to win ABN’s hand after a six-month scrap.

But for some in the Netherlands, the wrenching debate about the proposed break-up deal is far from over. A sense of loss, anger and concern remains over the likely division of ABN.

In part, this comes from an emotional attachment to the lender.

The institution, whose history dates to 1824, has a branch on most major Dutch streets and its name is emblazoned as a sponsor across the shirts of top football team Ajax.

The expected break-up of ABN between the consortium’s members has hit a raw nerve for some in a country that has seen a string of big companies fall to foreigners and activist investors.

Jacques Teuwen, head of the Unie trade union, which represents 2,000 managerial level staff among ABN’s 20,000 employees in the Netherlands, said: “It really is unbelievable that this bank could be sold and split up. The Dutch government should have said it was unacceptable. In a similar case in France or Germany, the authorities would have stepped in.”

Some business leaders are also angry. Kees van Lede, a prominent Dutch executive and former head of Akzo Nobel, the conglomerate, told de Volkskrant newspaper: “There was a lack of direction. A number of people should have said we will not allow this but nothing happened. That is very bad.”

The bid by the RBS-led consortium – which includes Santander of Spain and Belgo-Dutch group Fortis – has given new impetus to calls for the relatively small Netherlands to shield its big groups from foreign pursuers.

However, a spokesman for Wouter Bos, the Labour finance minister who approved the RBS-led break-up offer, said: “Big takeovers inflame public opinion. But many companies in the Netherlands have been in foreign hands for many years now. It is not a new phenomenon.

“People tend to forget that, not long ago, Dutch companies were taking over companies in other countries. In general, there is no feeling in our government that takeovers damage the Netherlands.”

ABN last year acquired Antonveneta, a big Italian bank, after a long tussle.

With the RBS group seemingly nearing success against a less financially valuable offer for ABN by Barclays of the UK, discussion has moved to whether a break-up of the bank would succeed in practice.

In particular, questions centre on whether a division of ABN’s Dutch operations will take longer and be more expensive than estimated.

Under the consortium’s proposal, Fortis – a Belgo-Dutch bank but viewed in the Netherlands as being squarely Belgian – would acquire ABN’s retail and commercial units in the Netherlands.

Fortis, younger and smaller than ABN, would also take its asset management division and private banking arm while RBS would buy the wholesale division, among other operations.

Mr Teuwen argues this is a flawed model. “ABN has 50 per cent of the daily traffic of money in the Netherlands. Nobody can imagine what will happen if there are technical problems if the divisions, which are closely linked, are split. This has not been done anywhere else.”

The consortium, however, says it is confident that it can divide the operations successfully and adds that it will proceed with great care.

More broadly, despite emotional ties in the Netherlands to ABN, the bank has faced criticism and claims of arrogance for a perceived failure to anticipate that it could become a target after first holding takeover talks with Barclays.

A person close to the situation said: “The question you can ask is that, if ABN had not entered into a protocol with Barclays, would the consortium still have made its move? I think it highly likely that it would have.

“Why did ABN engage in a discussion with Barclays? ABN decided it would be better to act early in the consolidation game so that it could choose its partner. But the rules of the market are the rules of the market. Someone – the consortium – has bid more than someone else and won. Is ABN’s managing board responsible? By definition it is.”

But not everyone is gloomy. Jan Maarten Slagter, director of the VEB, which represents shareholders in the Netherlands, says: “I think most people realise that ABN as a player in the Dutch banking market will still exist after the takeover. It will either be a strong Belgo-Dutch operation with Fortis, or it will be with Barclays a strong Anglo-Dutch combination.”

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