SG Paribas attacks AXA role in bank bid battle

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The Independent Online
A BEHIND-THE-SCENES row over the role of AXA, the insurance group, as kingmaker in France's $36bn (pounds 22.4bn) banking bid battle burst into the open yesterday, as Societe Generale and Paribas disputed claims that they had acquiesced in attempts by AXA to broke a three-way merger with rival BNP shortly before it launched a counterbid they are now fighting to the death.

AXA chairman Claude Bebear claimed that Paribas chairman Andre Levy-Lang and SocGen chairman Daniel Bouton, who struck a $19bn merger early in February, had agreed later that month that a merger with BNP would be of interest - just days before BNP gatecrashed their deal with a hostile counterbid.

The claim was intended to punch a hole in SG Paribas' defence that the three-way cost-cutting retail bank merger was a hostile act and would never work because of its complexity.

However, Mr Levy-Lang and Mr Bouton yesterday contested Mr Bebear's version of events. They said Mr Bebear had raised the question of a merger with BNP with them on 10 February, when he expressed concern about BNP being left in the cold by the SG Paribas deal.

However, they insisted that after several meetings with Mr Bebear, they eventually concluded that the deal would not make sense and phoned Mr Bebear on 27 February from their car on the way to Heathrow airport to tell him they were not interested in a three-way deal.

Mr Bouton said yesterday: "We said you had to deliver a complete project - that is SG Paribas. Maybe two or three years later we should look at whether it would make sense either to do a deal with a retail bank in another country or with Credit Lyonnais, or why not BNP? But the answer would have been two years from now and would have been dictated by the market."

SG Paribas has repeatedly rejected appeals from BNP chairman Michel Pebereau to meet for talks. Mr Levy-Lang claimed yesterday that the three-way deal Mr Pebereau proposed would cost at least 500m euros in lost business. That had to be set against the risk that the savings BNP claims will flow from integrating computer systems - a one-off - could be delivered.

Yesterday's exchanges have brought into the open the shadowy role of Mr Bebear as king-maker in the affair. However, the increasingly acrimonious tone is symptomatic of the growing tension between SG, Paribas and AXA, Paribas' largest shareholder.

Mr Levy-Lang is angered at the way Mr Bebear initially supported the SG Paribas deal, only to switch horses later and back the BNP bid.

Earlier this week, Paribas raised the stakes with a threat to use legal means to stop AXA voting its 6.7 per cent shareholding in Paribas in favour of the BNP bid. It bases this threat on a 10-year-old agreement it made public earlier this week which it says prevents AXA selling its shares to a hostile party.

SG Paribas claims the pact has dealt a serious blow to BNP, which was relying on the support of AXA to deliver Paribas into its hands. But AXA claims the agreement is no longer binding and has vowed to press on with its support regardless of the pact.

The hostility at Paribas to AXA was palpable yesterday. Senior executives at SocGen are equally scathing about BNP, which they accuse of lying when it claims that its three-way merger proposal can deliver more cost savings without branch closures or job cuts.

Jean-Jacques Ogier, head of SocGen's retail banking arm, said: "Someone is lying to someone. Either BNP is lying to its shareholders or BNP is lying to its staff."