Stock Exchange investigates AIB share price movements

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The Independent Online
THE STOCK Exchange is investigating the sharp movements in the share price of Allied Irish Banks (AIB), which has been at the centre of speculation that it is about to be taken over by either Lloyds TSB or Germany's Deutsche Bank.

AIB finance director, Declan McSweeney, said: "We have been in discussions with the Stock Exchange." On the takeover rumours, he said: "We have been getting calls on this every day. We have taken a decision not to comment." However, he added: "Our intention and desire is to remain independent."

Mr McSweeney was speaking after AIB reported a 42 per cent jump in profits to Ipounds 826m, making AIB the first Irish company to report profits of over one billion euros. Mr McSweeney attributed the strong result primarily to the continued strength of the Irish economy. AIB said loan growth in Ireland was 26 per cent and deposits grew by 13 per cent. He said the bank had also seen strong growth in the UK.

Mr McSweeney said the bank was looking for acquisitions in the US, where AIB has completed the integration of First Maryland Bancorp, and in Poland, where its 60 per cent-owned offshoot WBK reported a 30 per cent rise in profits. In the UK, he said: "We would be keen to expand the business but it is hard to find suitable opportunities."

The finance director sees little sign of the Irish economy slowing, despite fears that the move to a 3 per cent base rate after Ireland joined the Euro zone last month might push the boom too far. Despite 30 per cent house price rises in some parts of Dublin and a shortfall in new houses, the housing boom was still fairly soundly based, he said.

One worrying factor was the sharp decline in margins, a result of the general fall in interest rates and tough competition in the Irish insurance and savings market. However, strong income growth saw AIB's cost income ratio - the standard industry measure of efficiency - fall from 62.4 per cent to 54.9 per cent despite a rise in operating costs, chiefly due to acquisitions in the US and the Polish bank which was included in full- year results for the first time.

AIB was able to report a return on equity of 27.3 per cent, putting it ahead of all the major UK banks, with the exception of Lloyds at 33 per cent.