Dresdner may join French bank bids

SHARES IN DRESDNER, the German banking giant, soared nearly 8 per cent yesterday amid feverish speculation that it may be preparing to enter the battle for Societe Generale and Paribas, whose $17bn (pounds 10.5bn) merger was gatecrashed by a $37bn counterbid from rival BNP on Tuesday night.

Some sources said Dresdner would mount its own bid for either SocGen or Paribas. Others say it might join BNP in its bid.

Bankers said BNP, in making the first hostile bid in the French financial sector in years, had effectively bust the French banking market wide open, creating the opportunity for a foreign bank to pull off a major deal. One banker said last night: "If someone wants one of them, now is the time to move."

Banking sources said that even if the BNP proposal collapsed after being rejected by both SocGen and Paribas yesterday, there was little doubt that all three banks were now effectively in play.

ABN Amro, the Dutch bank that had tentative discussions with both SocGen and BNP late last year, was watching the position carefully, as was General Electric, the US financial services giant known to be interested in some of Paribas's consumer finance businesses.

Banking sources said, however, that the pressure was very much on Dresdner, which has a 1 per cent cross-holding with BNP. "There is an assumption that Dresdner will be involved in some way."

However, its position is complicated by the fact that its largest shareholder. German insurer Allianz, is manoeuvring for a stake in Credit Lyonnais, the French bank that is due to be privatised this summer, and may not risk antagonising the French government.

SocGen and Paribas yesterday presented a united front, jointly appointing Rothschild & Cie to handle their defence. The two banks rejected the BNP offer, saying a three-way merger was a "hazardous venture" and unlikely to succeed.

There were strong suspicions yesterday that BNP chairman Michel Pebereau's real motive in launching the bid was to force the hand of the French government, which had effectively isolated the bank by giving its blessing to the earlier SG Paribas deal and then rejecting BNP's bid for a controlling stake in Credit Lyonnais.

Mr Pebereau said yesterday he would be prepared to consider a two-way deal with either target bank if the three-way plan he has proposed did not succeed.

Yesterday's developments rekindled takeover speculation throughout the European banking sector.