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French banking duo on the slow road to recovery

The Paris headquarters of BNP Paribas. BNP and fellow French banking giant SocGen are nearing the ned of their crash diets as they sell off non-core assets.

Mal Langsdon/Reuters/Mal Langsdon/Reuters

BNP Paribas and Société Générale are nearing the end of their crash diets. At least, that's what the French top banking duo hope after a first quarter in which they shrank their balance sheets following last year's euro zone-induced funding squeeze.

BNP, France's largest bank, says it has completed 80 per cent of its asset disposal program, which will be over by the summer. In the rush to deleverage and refocus on euro-denominated funding, both banks have offloaded a mixture of legacy assets, loans and corporate and sovereign bonds. Some buyers have even paid cash, as in the sale of BNP's majority holding in real-estate group Klepierre, which allowed the bank to book a handy €1.5-billion (1.95-billion) capital gain.

Both banks can still rely on strong retail arms that show no signs of suffering from the euro zone's economic woes – at least not yet. SocGen is arguably less vulnerable to a euro zone-wide recession if it eventually hits, as the lender is less exposed to the zone than its larger rival. Strip out the Klepierre sale, and both banks moved in sync during the quarter, with revenue down 6 per cent at BNP and 5 per cent at SocGen. Net profit at both banks fell by roughly 20 per cent.

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BNP, however, has a head start when strengthening its capital buffers. The bank says it will have reached a core Tier 1 capital ratio of 9 per cent – assuming the full implementation of new Basel III rules – by January, 2013. Under its current assumptions, BNP will get there this June. SocGen reckons its core Tier 1 ratio will be in the range of 9 per cent to 9.5 per cent at the end of next year.

Their association with the euro zone will continue to afflict BNP and SocGen for some time. And they may seriously suffer if France finds itself at the centre of the storm after its presidential election. Both banks trade at a fraction of their book value. But on that metric SocGen trades at a 34 per cent discount to BNP. There's no obvious reason for the discrepancy, save for the contrast between BNP's traditional, robust model and SocGen's sexier but more troubled past. Even for slimmed-down banks, reputation still matters.

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