Belgian Waffle

The subprime crisis claims more banking victims.

What a difference a couple of weeks make. When Gilbert Mittler, then finance chief of Fortis, spoke with CFO Europe in June, his views on the Dutch-Belgian bank’s strategy were clear and confident. It would be “substantially less exciting,” he said, if he had to manage only the subprime crisis or the integration of newly acquired assets from ABN Amro. “One of the two is easy to manage,” he claimed. “The two together is a challenge.” (See “In the Hot Seat,” July/August.)

It appears to have been too much of a challenge. In July, an unexpected overhaul of the bank’s financing led to the ousting of CEO Jean-Paul Votron amid widespread shareholder angst. Votron left the company two weeks after surprising the markets with a sprawling €8 billion capital increase and cancelling the bank’s dividend. Shares plunged as investors and analysts reiterated their unease about the ABN deal and complained about botched communications from the board.

Then, in early August, Fortis announced that Mittler’s three key reports — Lars Machenil, Fred Bos and Jeannine Quaetaert, responsible for finance, risk and legal affairs, respectively — would instead report to the new CEO, Herman Verwilst. Mittler would thus “fully devote his time to the role of special adviser to the CEO.” At the same time, the company announced that it would hold special shareholder meetings in order to “intensify the dialogue with the investor community.”

And there’s plenty to talk about, especially after the bank reported a halving of second-quarter net profit shortly after announcing Mittler’s job change. For Jaap Meijer, an analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort, questions should be raised about the bank’s high levels of hybrid capital, the loss it made on the sale of Hollandsche Bank Unie, part of the former ABN, and much else. With hindsight, Fortis should have raised more than €13 billion in its September rights issue, Meijer adds. Fortis’s shares have traded around 40% lower than the rights issue price for months.

Analysts at JPMorgan offer some consolation to Fortis’s newly installed executive team. In a recent research note, they stated, “The market may be able to move past the balance sheet and focus on the relatively attractive ABN Amro integration story.” It may, eventually, but the road ahead is not yet clear.

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