Bank's Napoleon meets his Waterloo: Diane Coyle on a turning point for Credit Lyonnais

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A SENIOR colleague once described Jean-Yves Haberer as the Napoleon of French banking. At the time it was meant to be a flattering description of the then-chairman of the troubled bank Credit Lyonnais. He was seen as a visionary leader of the country's campaign for dominance in the single European banking market.

His high-risk, expansionary strategy failed. In November the conservative government demoted Mr Haberer, a socialist appointee, to the smaller bank Credit National. Last week he was exiled from that job, too.

Other senior Credit Lyonnais managers have been swept out by a new broom, Jean Peyrelevade. These include Michel Gallot, who headed the subsidiary that lent more than Fr500m to flamboyant businessman Bernard Tapie, now due to sell corporate and personal assets to repay the loans.

However, the ritual humiliation of Mr Haberer is the strongest signal that an era has drawn to an end. By blaming Credit Lyonnais's problems on one individual, the government hopes to entice potential investors when the bank is privatised this year or next.

The sacrificial lamb is bleating. With the backing of President Mitterrand, he has forced the government into accepting a formal inquiry.

A former senior Treasury civil servant with a reputation for being secretive, Mr Haberer was put in charge at Credit Lyonnais in 1988. The scale of the bank's subsequent expansion was certainly imperial. The key measure was growth in its loan book, which doubled to Fr2bn within five years.

In this lurked almost every corporate catastrophe to hit the banking world - including Olympia & York, Robert Maxwell and Metallgesellschaft - along with Credit Lyonnais's exposure to the bankrupt Hollywood studio MGM, through loans to the Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti.

There can be no question that during Mr Haberer's reign the bank lacked controls on its lending policy. When the 1993 results were announced a few weeks ago, net losses of Fr6.9bn were well ahead of what analysts had originally feared, and compared with losses of Fr1.9bn in 1992. Bad debt provision climbed from Fr9.6bn for 1991 to Fr14.7bn for 1992 and Fr17.8bn for 1993.

But was this all the fault of one man? Under his predecessor, Jean-Maxime Leveque, Credit Lyonnais had a similar track record on third world debt. In 1983, for example, it set aside Fr11.9bn in provisions - rather higher than the figure a decade on, when adjusted for inflation.

The Treasury civil servant proved to be a bad banker, but he was good at promoting France's biggest state-owned bank as a national champion at a time when conventional wisdom in the banking industry said that having a broad international spread was the key to success. If it had worked, Mr Haberer's strategy would have left Credit Lyonnais as one of only three banks - with Deutsche Bank and Citibank - with truly global reach.

Since it did not work, the government has agreed to a rescue plan to clean up the bank's balance sheet ahead of privatisation. It will get a Fr4.9bn capital injection to keep its capital ratio above the regulatory minimum, while Fr40bn of non-performing loans will be transferred to a separate company for five years and partially guaranteed by the state.

Credit Lyonnais has also announced it will sell more than Fr20bn-worth of its holdings in other French companies during the next two years. It holds sizeable stakes in groups such as Rhone-Poulenc, Bouygues, Lyonnaise des Eaux-Dumez and Total. A cost-cutting plan will reduce its 38,500-strong French workforce by 10 per cent in three years.

The new chairman also intends to rationalise the pan-European retail and corporate banking network created by his predecessor. The grand plan could still bear fruit.

In the meantime, analysts are reluctant to put figures on the bank's progress. One said: 'We have met the management, but it's pointless trying to make a forecast for this bank at the moment.'

Tetsuaki Iwamoto, a banking analyst at the Daiwa Institute of Research, said: 'Credit Lyonnais says it will break even this year, so that is the figure I will put in my forecast. Provisions were much higher than expected. How much they come down depends on how much the government is prepared to help.'

(Photograph omitted)