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Fat Cats and Fatter Kittens

The largest financial institutions and their smaller competitors are the prime beneficiaries of last year's economic growth.

These days, with macro-economic indicators continuing their skyward trends, such superlatives as "all-time high" seem to accompany every new report. As banks begin their announcements of last year's final results, it's becoming clear that they won't be left out of the party.

For example, PKO BP, Poland's largest retail bank, posted an impressive zl.1.8 billion in gross profit-the largest single-year income in the industry and an 8.6 percent rise over 2003 (make that a 15.3 percent rise, if you're using the new accounting standards).

"Not only is the bank not losing the market anymore, it is increasing its share," says the president of PKO, Andrzej Podsiadlo, whose company operates 40 percent of all basic bank accounts in Poland. Podsiadlo hopes for an even better result this year and has announced the modernization of all the bank's offices, which is projected to cost several hundred million zloty. It is also considering dividends for its shareholders higher than the originally promised 40 percent of income.

"We are interested in taking over other banks, but rather not in Poland," Podsiadlo says. Supposedly, PKO BP is looking to expand in CEE region countries, including Ukraine.

Smaller banks recorded even more rapid growth in turnover and income. NORD/LB saw its gross profit more than double to zl.9 million. Profits of the Polish branch of Austrian Raiffeisen Bank reached zl.205 million. Fortis Bank achieved even better growth, gaining some zl.75 million in 2004 after earning less than half that the year before. PKO BP could swallow up those three in an instant, but their results demonstrate the prosperity the industry has enjoyed throughout the last 12 months.

That goes too for the most recent news from ING Bank Slaski, 87.8 percent owned by Dutch ING Group. After a weak 2003 the bank increased earnings more than twelve-fold, to zl.366 million. Like PKO BP, Slaski plans to pay a significant dividend of zl.20.5 per share. To prevent it from being delisted from the WSE, ING has been advised to decrease its stake in the bank to 75 percent. According to an analyst from Bank Pekao SA, Artur Szeski, Slaski altered its strategy and focused mainly on gaining market share in individual accounts.

Due to stagnation in the corporate loans market, banks earned money mainly on deposits and individual credits fueled by a consumption boom. It is unclear, however, if consumer spending and asset levels could remain high for long. Wage levels fell in real terms, and economists agree that household spending will eventually cool down. To maintain growth, bankers are counting on corporate clients to finally start investing.

(WBJ 21.ii.05)

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