Swedbank, robbers target bank

  • 2001-03-15
  • Edvinas Butkus
VILNIUS - The day after Swedbank's representatives told Vilnius officials they were still interested in acquiring ailing Lithuanian savings bank Taupomasis Bankas, robbers hit for the third time in six months a bank's branch in the same Vilnius neighbor-hood as before.

In a country with a population of 3.7 million, the biggest state-owned savings bank says it runs 5.5 million residents' accounts and has the largest number of branch offices.

These mainly outdated branches, even in the capital city Vilnius, seem most attractive to local robbers since they do not have guards; however, the savings bank currently holds 47 percent of individual deposits in Lithuania and this keeps tempting possible investors.

The Lithuanian State Property Fund is waiting for the country's central bank and competition council to present their conclusions about negotiations with Estonia's Hansapank on the sale of Lithuania's Taupomasis Bankas before deciding whether to resume formal talks, officials said March 7.

"We will continue informal talks with Hansapank, but at the same time we will wait for conclusions from the competition council and the Bank of Lithuania," Deputy Finance Minister Mindaugas Jonikas said after a meeting with Hansapank representatives. "If the latter institutions confirm that there are no obstacles, we will resume the formal negotiations. Since provisions of the Taupomasis Bankas deal have been practically finalized, an agreement on the sale of the shares in the bank could be signed in the near term," he added.

Andres Sahlen, an adviser to the president of Sweden's Swedbank, the Estonian bank's majority owner, and Erkki Raasuke and Arunas Siksta, members of the board of the Hansapank Group, confirmed during talks with the State Property Fund and government officials in Vilnius that Hansapank was ready to continue the negotiations to acquire Taupomasis Bankas.

Lithuania suspended talks with Hansapank on the sale of 90.24 percent of shares in Lithuania's largest state-owned bank over monopoly concerns which followed the merger announcement between Swedbank and Scandinaviska Enskilda Banken, or SEB. Hansapank's representatives also met with Rimantas Stanikunas, chairman of the competition council, last week.

"The competition council believes that the country's banking sector will actually fall into hands of one group as a result of Hansapank's acquisition of Taupomasis Bankas and the Swedish banks' merger. The competition council would not tolerate that," Stanikunas told Baltic News Service.

But if Swedbank and SEB confirmed that they intended to sell one of the two Lithuanian banks that would come under their control, Vilniaus Bankas or Taupomasis Bankas, the competition body would give the green light for the talks between Hansapank and the State Property Fund, the official added.

SEB holds around 99 percent of shares in Vilniaus Bankas, Lithuani-a's biggest commercial bank, and Swedbank has a 57.7 percent stake in Estonia's Hansapank, which owns the Vilnius-based Hansabankas. Hansapank's acquisition of Taupomasis Bankas would give the new group a market share of around 70 percent in Lithuania.

Estonian analysts predict that Swedbank and SEB might sell Hansapank, one of the two banks they own in Estonia, in order to secure approval from the EU regulatory authorities for their merger plans.

Estonian Finance Minister Siim Kallas sent a letter to the European Commission written together with the Competition Board last week, asking it to consider the effect of the merger of Sweden's Swedbank and SEB on the Estonian banking market. Kallas said that plans of a potential merger of Uhispank and Hansapank were worrying, because this could create serious competition problems and contradict public interests.

Hansapank, the largest bank in the Baltic countries, was announced the winner of the tender to acquire a stake in the savings bank on December 29 of last year. The winner was named after the government and later the privatization commission had lowered the minimum selling price of the bank. According to the unofficial data, the price for the bank was reduced from 200 million litas ($50 million) to about 150 million litas, with the government taking on no additional liabilities related to illiquid assets and bad loans of the bank. The sell-off was expected to be completed by the middle of February.

Meanwhile, neither investors nor the robbers seem to be happy. The thieves who robbed the savings bank's branch the morning of March 8 are believed to have made off with only 2,500 litas. Three masked males entered the branch, smashed through a glass partition and helped themselves to the cash. No bank employees were injured and the suspects were apprehended soon near the bank. Last October bank robbers made off from Taupomasis Bankas with about 50,000 litas. In January, a robbery in the same branch netted thieves some 20,000 litas. All the three incidents occurred in the same residential area, Lazdynai.