SYDNEY -(Dow Jones)- France's largest bank is taking tentative steps toward boosting its reach in Asia at a time when the sovereign debt crisis closer to home is prompting rival European lenders to cut back exposure to the region.
BNP Paribas SA (BNP.FR), the biggest lender in France by market value, this week launched a cash-management service in Australia targeting multinational companies moving operations to the country, and for local clients with international activities.
Like many of its peers, BNP Paribas has been forced to reassess its global expansion plans, as deteriorating economic conditions in Europe have necessitated some de-leveraging of their balance sheets. The French bank says it has already expanded to 12 countries in Asia-Pacific since 2010, and that it aims, despite a recent slowdown in China's economy, to become among the region's top-four players in cash-management services.
"In spite of the fact that some of the large countries in Asia Pacific have slowed, the growth is still pretty strong," Pierre Veyres, BNP Paribas's Global Head of Transaction Banking told Dow Jones Newswires in an interview. "Although there are some short-term bumps in the road, this is a long-term plan."
Without providing hard numbers, Veyres said that he expects "double-digit growth" this year in the lender's Asia-Pacific transaction-banking business, which includes global-trade, structured-finance and correspondent-banking, as well as cash management. That quantum of growth would be in line with the previous two years, he added.
The Australian cash-management business, which handles money for corporations, will start small, with only five client-facing BNP Paribas staff allocated for the initial rollout.
Euro-zone banks are cutting their international exposure having embarked on a massive lending spree to developing countries. The lenders have cut their involvement in Asia by an estimated 30% since the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in September 2008, but still have around $440 billion exposure to the region's emerging economies, according to the Asian Development Bank.
Adding to concern over the health of Europe's embattled banking sector was data released this week that showed business activity in the euro zone contracted at its steepest rate in nearly three years in May, and growing speculation Greece may be forced to exit the euro zone.
Credit Agricole SA (ACA.FR) has already said it would cut 2,350 jobs globally and retreat from 21 of the 53 countries it operates in, while Societe Generale AG (GLE.FR) is reducing its worldwide headcount by 1,600 to focus more on its home markets.
"We want to be a fully-fledged investment bank for our core clients in Europe," Didier Valet, head of Societe Generale's investment banking arm, told the Financial News in February.
BNP Paribas hasn't managed to avoid cutbacks of its own. In November, the bank said it was shedding almost 1,400 jobs at its global corporate and investment-banking unit, and that it aims to cut EUR70 billion worth of risk-weighted assets from its balance sheet.
Still, the bank remains committed to expanding in Asia's growing markets at a time when European growth looks to be stagnating.
In Australia, the French bank has been targeting clients in the resources sector, in addition to infrastructure developers and industrial companies. It intends to start offering cash-management services in addition to existing supply-chain and trade-finance products.
At the moment, the bank deals largely with the top 100 companies listed on Australia's stock exchange, including Qantas Airways Ltd. (QAN.AU), BHP Billiton Ltd. (BHP.AU) and Brambles Ltd. (BXB.AU), said Fernando Pacheco, head of its Australian cash-management business.
"We're seeing more and more multinationals that haven't got a footprint here want to come in," he said. "There's no doubt that over the last 10 years, the Australian economy has become more global and more important to global trade."
BNP Paribas reported consensus-beating results for the first quarter of 2012 earlier this month, with net profit rising to EUR2.87 billion in the three months ended March 31, up 10% from a year earlier, beating analyst forecasts of EUR2.5 billion in a FactSet poll.
BNP Paribas' Veyres said Europe remained a key focus, despite the region's troubles.
"Europe as a whole is an economy growing less than other parts of the world, but still there is growth in the largest countries," he said.
-By Caroline Henshaw, Dow Jones Newswires; +61-2-8272-4689; email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 25, 2012 00:47 ET (04:47 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.