Best Emerging Market Banks: Central & Eastern Europe

Article excerpt

Central and Eastern Europe has all too often proved a graveyard of ambition for international banks. Politics, regulations, cultural clashes-all have combined with the slow pace of economic growth to stymie attempts to remake home-grown institutions as bodies capable of providing developed country standard of services.

But in the past few years, there have been unmistakable signs of change. Partly, but not always, under the influence of foreign capital, the region now possesses better banks than at any time in recent history.

That's made choosing the best bank in Central and Eastern Europe a harder task than ever. Citibank, as always, has claims on the strength of its network, client relationships, and product range. Italy's Unicredito, acting in concert with Allianz of Germany, is sparking a revolution in banks it now owns across the region: if early signs are right, it is the bank to watch. But it is RZB of Austria that is the Global Finance choice, on the back of a longer commitment to the region that is already paying handsome dividends.

With 550 outlets and 11,000 employees in 13 CEE countries, the bank operates mainly through own-name branded offices. Not exclusively, however: Tatra Bank, Global Finance's top-rated bank in Slovakia, is majority owned by RZB, and in April the bank acquired 97% of shares in Krekova banka of Slovenia.

The bank services corporations active in the region: it was the market leader for CEE syndicated loans in 2001, for example. But like other lenders, it's also got a keen eye on a nascent market for consumer finance in the region's many separate countries.

* Herbert Stepic, deputy chairman (including International) www.rzb.at

AZERBAIJAN

International Bank of Azerbaijan Republic

Strategy: IBA continues to dominate a country where the slow pace of economic and legislative reform acts as a drag on foreign investment and economic growth. Privatization has been on the agenda for years, but in the meantime IBA has managed to combine introducing new services with the advantages of state ownership. The bank has a thriving payment card business and a corporate services center for lending and financing trade and export.

Jahangir Fevzi oglu Hajiyev, chairman

www.ibar.az

BULGARIA

Bulbank

Strategy: The bank has always been a leader in corporate banking, but since privatization in 2000 it has its eye on the retail market, too. That has long been dominated by the state savings bank, itself slated for sell-off

Innovation: New owners Unicredito and Allianz have stressed effective risk management and top-notch levels of service-both concepts rare in the Bulgarian banking sector.A number of joint Italian-Bulgarian partnerships have been set in place to remake the bank to international standards.

Financial strength: Bulbank has set a target ROE of 25%. In 2000 it hit a figure of 29%, largely because of exceptional gains on asset sales. 2001 results are imminent; majority owner Unicredito reported a sizable increase in revenue was likely.

* Levon Hampartzoumyan,

chairman & CEO

www.bulbank.bg

CROATIA

Zagrebacka Bank

Strategy:The bank has refocused on its core services, selling holdings such as that in pharmaceutical company Pliva. The March acquisition of a majority stake by Unicredito of Italy and Allianz of Germany should remove any uncertainty as well as provide the know-how to continue upgrading services and products.

Market share: Zagrebacka is the largest bank in Croatia, with total assets of (Eur)3.5 billion at the end of June 2001.

Financial strength: Pre-tax profits were almost halved in the year ended December 2001, though this comparison was distorted by exceptional gains booked in 2000. Raising Zagrebacka's rating to BBB- from BB+ in March this year, Fitch cited the bank's likely access to new products, cheaper funding, and better risk management systems. …