COVER

BIG AND BIGGER

KIMBERLEY NOBLE February 2 1998
COVER

BIG AND BIGGER

KIMBERLEY NOBLE February 2 1998

BIG AND BIGGER

COVER

KIMBERLEY NOBLE

A $ 39-billion deal challenges Ottawa's policy on bank mergers

It is Friday afternoon, and John Cleghorn and Matthew Barrett have spent the better part of the past 24 hours in each other’s company. The two bank chairmen, respectively the biggest of the cheeses at the Royal Bank of Canada and the Bank of Montreal, attended meetings of their boards of directors the night before, then got up for a predawn signing ceremony at which they pledged to meld their operations into the largest lending and deposit-taking institution in Canada. Since the signing,

Cleghorn and Barrett have been all but inseparable, working their way through a tightly orchestrated series of presentations to the media, financial analysts, employees and anyone else who has been able to grab a few minutes of their attention on what, stockmarket meltdowns and failures of real estate giants notwithstanding, is shaping up as one of the most mind-boggling days in the history of the Canadian financial services industry. They are not completely comfortable when a photographer asks them to put their heads together for a portrait. “I don’t get this close to my wife,” Cleghorn quips.

But they co-operate, nonetheless, in the conviction that everything they say and do on this day will be worthwhile if it helps them push through the merger. “I’ve been in the business for 35 years,” Barrett says in his soothing Irish lilt, “and this opportunity to take two great historic Canadian institutions, and out of them create one of the great banks of the world, is a banker’s dream.”

Dream is a good word for it. „

The deal they are proposing would, by a wide margin, qualiÿ fy as the largest corporate I merger ever in Canada. With £

85,000 workers, the organiza-§ tion would rank as the coun-1 try’s largest single employer. §

The new bank, which has yet to be named, would be a true behemoth of international proportions, with $453 billion in assets and a stock-market valuation of $39 billion, based on last week’s closing share prices. When ranked according to market capitalization, the combined entity would be

the 10th-largest financial institution in North America, and 22nd in the world.

The notion that Canada needs such a massive creature to compete in the increasingly cutthroat global market has been the subject of no end of bankerly speeches in recent years. Cleghorn and Barrett have been among the idea’s most passionate advocates. But it is still an alien concept to many of the banks’ customers, who worry that the country’s major financial institutions are rich and powerful enough, and that any further concentration in the sector will inevitably lead to higher prices and less choice for borrowers—not to mention more consolidations.

Will they pull it off? Will Ottawa let this one go through, thereby opening the floodgates to all of the other mergers and consolidations that are bound to follow? The question has the entire Canadian business community buzzing. One investment dealer overheard a colleague talking about how he would always remember where he was when he first heard the Royal-Bank of Montreal news, much as people talk about what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was shot. In fact, the idea that the Royal and the Bank of Montreal would embrace each other in corporate marriage seemed so farfetched that some downtown Toronto bankers and brokers thought the news might be some sort of hoax. “I have to tell you, I was blown off my seat,” one corporate financier said. “I thought it was one of those trick Internet

things.” Another saw the news scroll across his computer screen and blurted out: “What is this, April Fool?”

For Cleghorn and Barrett, however, this is no joke. In the months ahead, they will do their utmost to make sure their dream, however ambitious and politically charged, becomes a reality. For much of the past year, they have been crisscrossing North America, preaching the gospel of bigger banks. They both insist that when it came time to select a potential merger partner, they were each at the top of the other’s list.

Ostensibly, they came up with the idea over a glass of punch at a Christmas get-together on the 68th floor of the Bank of Montreal’s headquarters on Bay Street, the tallest office tower in the country. They pitched it to their key executives and stickhandled it through the “rigorous examination,” in Barrett’s words, of both boards of directors, starting early in January and going right up to 10 p.m. the night before the deal was signed.

THE MARRIAGE TERMS

ASSETS

Royal Bank $245 billion

Bank of Montreal $208 billion

Total $453 billion

All figures as of Oct. 31,1997

PROFITS $1.7 billion $1.3 billion $3 billion

EMPLOYEES 50,719 f 34,286 85,005 t

The shakeout in the banking business, Barrett says, is akin to what happened recently in retail

Their challenge now is to persuade Canadians that this surprising marriage of the country’s No. 1 and No. 3 banks, ranked by assets, will be good for more than the blue suits on Bay Street. Already, the banks are under fire over rising service fees, complaints of meagre financing for small business, sweeping workforce reductions, billion-dollarplus profits, and the multimillion-dollar salaries and bonuses enjoyed by bank executives.

They acknowledge that there is a huge job ahead, and that it will not be easy. “We never thought it was going to be anything less,” says Cleghorn, the pragmatist. Adds Barrett, the silvertongued visionary: “Our attitude is, why wouldn’t you want to approve the creation of an international financial player à la Alcan, or the Bombardiers, or the Nortels? Why wouldn’t you want to have one of your banks in that league?”

After a day of such presentations, the two bankers are functioning smoothly as a team. They have a polished script, and they know it by heart. By three in the afternoon, they are not quite at the point where they are jumping in to finish each other’s sentences, but they are getting close. Barrett, the superior showman, introduces the larger concepts and colorful analogies, while Cleghorn, the nofrills thinker, follows up with the details.

Take the example of what bank executives say is the biggest reason behind the deal: the wave of bank mergers sweeping every other country of the industrialized world, and the fact that large foreign banks are now able to penetrate Canada without even setting up shop in the country, at least not in any conventional way. Barrett uses the analogy of the big-box retailers that have wreaked havoc among Canadian retailers. What Canadians are seeing now in the banking business, he says, is akin to what happened several years ago in the retail sector—only this time the bankers want to get the jump on their foreign competitors before they come north to clean Canada’s clock. “It used to be said, you may remember, that oh, those Americans, they’ll never come up here. Well, the WalMarts are here and the Home Depots are here, and what are they doing? They’re offering a better value proposition. They are able to buy cheaper, they can give better value and higher-quality services in their stores. And then they put the local guy out of business, because in the end the consumer will consume from the best-priced and highest-quality provider in the marketplace.”

Cleghorn—who will be co-chairman and CEO of the bank, while Barrett takes on the slightly less powerful role of cochairman and head of the executive committee—interrupts with specifics. He rhymes off the names of all the international banks that have merged in the past two years, as well as those that have recently arrived in Canada. San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, for example, now offers cheap and plentiful small-business loans from a call centre in Colorado, while the Dutch giant ING is luring customers with the promise of a higher rate of return on savings accounts than is available from any Canadian bank. “Here’s something that’s generally not known,” Cleghorn says. “If you take a basket of, say, 12 or 13 traditional banking services, and compare what a Canadian would pay with what an American paid, you would be talking about a 50-per-cent difference—a 50-per-cent advantage for Canadians.” This, he says, is because of the size and clout of the big domestic banks, which were free to operate nationally in an era when their American cousins were restricted to local fiefdoms. But as banking evolves, Cleghorn warns, those advantages will disappear. Only bigger banks can spend the money that will be needed to compete with U.S. banks in the realm of computer and Internet banking. Foreign competitors, Barrett insists, “are starting to dwarf us.” Says Cleghorn: “We have to do it this way, or we will sit here and some time in the next century we will lose our own identity, we will not be Canadian-based. To be able to compete, we will have to join forces—maybe with a big American institution.”

This is the trump card, the final point that the bankers believe will ultimately persuade Canadians—employees, customers, regulators, voters and politicians—to support their plan. If the banks are forbidden to merge, Cleghorn and Barrett say, foreign-owned giants could take over the homegrown industry, sopping up Canadians’ savings while funnelling much-needed loans away from Canadian companies. Those foreign banks, it is hinted, would operate with complete disregard for the Canadian consumer, laying off employees, closing branches and paying their corporate taxes in other jurisdictions.

Cynics contend that is what the Canadian-based banks do already, adding that the desire to preserve domestic control of the industry likely stems as much from a concern for its Canadian executives as its Canadian identity. Investment bankers and brokerage employees, among others, are predicting widespread job losses in their ranks should the mega-merger go through. Just as passionately as Cleghorn and Barrett present their case for global competitiveness, critics argue that it is impossible to merge anything— a brokerage or a corporate finance department, let alone two banks with 2,500 retail branches, many of them side by side or on the same city block—without a lot of human carnage.

As proof, opponents of the deal point to the bank stocks, which rose sharply last Friday in response to the Royal-Bank of Montreal announcement. The sudden jump was interpreted by some as a sign that speculators believe other bank mergers will follow. (A pairing of the Toronto Dominion Bank and the Bank of Nova Scotia is a favorite, followed by a renewal of talks between the CIBC and Canada Trust.) Yet at the bottom of it all, one portfolio manager says, “these stocks are up because everybody expects the banks to be more profitable. And they are only going to be more profitable if they lower their costs. People are just capitalizing on the value of those cost savings in the domestic business.”

At bank branches across the country, however, bank employees seemed anxious to express support for their bosses’ global visions. At adjacent branches of the Royal and Bank of Montreal in Vancou-

ver, employees talked about how the merger is necessary because of global competition, even if it means they might personally lose their jobs. It was much the same in Montreal, where longtime Bank of Montreal employee Michel Bazinet said he had “anticipated this for a long time. In the banking world, we knew that in the near future there might be only three or four big Canadian banks.” A co-worker echoed his sentiments. “There’s no fear,” said Laura Buist, a Bank of Montreal manager in the main Montreal office. “There’s no concern, really. I think the Canadian government sees that we have to be able to compete outside Canada to exist.” This raises the $453-billion question: does the federal government understand and support the banks’ urge to merge? Is Finance Minister Paul Martin piqued, or secretly relieved, at the way the two banks jumped the gun on a task force he had set up to advise Ottawa on competition and concentration in the financial services sector? Will he voice concern in public while privately wishing them well, or is he willing to take the heat that would come his way should he stand up to the banking establishment and pull the plug on the Royal-Bank of Montreal dream?

Cleghorn and Barrett did not, because they could not, give Martin or anybody else in Ottawa prior notice of their spectacular deal. But at about 8 a.m. on Friday, they called the minister’s office to give him the news personally, shortly before it went out to the public. Martin was in a meeting at the time and asked that the bankers call back at nine. At 8:50 a.m., an aide handed him a copy of a newswire story on the announcement.

For the moment, only Martin and his closest advisers know what the Liberal government intends to do about the proposal. A year ago, Martin turned down the CIBC when that bank came nosing around for guidance on a possible takeover of Canada Trust. This may explain why Cleghorn and Barrett, who are both close to Ottawa’s inner circles, did not inform Martin of their agenda for Friday. For their part, the bankers say they had no choice but to keep Martin in the dark until the last minute. Otherwise, Barrett said, they might have been accused of leaking insider information. ‘We had legal advice—we had to go public before we told anybody.” Martin, described by aides as being “steamed” by the way the banks handled the matter, responded to the bombshell by stating, in his own news release, that he will not approve anything until September at the earliest

That is when a federal task force, established by the minister in 1996 to help shape government policy on the financial services industry, is scheduled to report. Task force chairman Harold Mackay, a Regina lawyer, said emphatically last week that nothing the big banks do in the meantime will alter his mandate or deadline. “Nothing changes as a result of this,” Mackay told Maclean’s. Bank mergers, he added, have always been high on the task force’s agenda, along with what Mackay euphemistically calls “the changing nature of the competitive landscape.” Last week’s announcement by the Royal and the Bank of Montreal virtually guarantees that the impact of those changes will be felt by every Canadian.

JENNIFER HUNTER

DALE EISLER

BRENDA BRANSWELL

BRUCE WALLACE

JOHN SCHOFIELD