May 15, 2020 / 5:31 PM / 16 days ago

Hungary's MKB and MTB in merger talks as local banks gain sway

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary’s MKB and MTB are in talks over a merger to create the country’s second-largest bank, opening a new chapter in the shake-up of a banking system that has seen local players gain influence since Prime Minister Viktor Orban took power.

FILE PHOTO: A view of the entrance to the National Bank of Hungary building in Budapest,Hungary February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Since taking office at the start of the last decade, Orban has worked to reduce the hold of foreign investors in key sectors such as energy, telecommunications and finance, where domestic ownership has increased to over 50% under his rule.

MKB, in which Orban associate Lorinc Meszaros owns a 48.6% stake, according to an August 2018 filing, and Magyar Takarekszovetkezeti Bank (MTB) said on Friday they planned to establish a joint financial holding company, called Magyar Bankholding Zrt.

Each lender would own half of the new entity.

They will submit an application to form the new holding company to the National Bank of Hungary later this month.

Magyar Bankholding would be led by MTB Chairman Jozsef Vida, while MKB Chief Executive Adam Balog, a former central banker and state secretary under Orban, would sit on the board of directors.

The combined entity would have 1.3 million customers, 840 branches, and a balance sheet of 4.3 trillion forints, which would make it the second-largest banking group in Hungary.

“In the coming months, we will need to decide how our clients will benefit the most,” Vida said in a statement, adding that options included a partial or full merger of the two banks. A decision about the final form of co-operation would be made at a later stage, the statement added.

The new group would compete with Hungary’s OTP Bank (OTPB.BU), central Europe’s largest independent lender, which had total assets worth 14.6 trillion forints at the end of 2018.

Other rivals include Austria’s Erste Group Bank (ERST.VI) and Raiffeisen (RBIV.VI), Belgium’s KBC (KBC.BR), as well as Italian groups UniCredit (CRDI.MI) and Intesa SanPaolo (ISP.MI).

MKB, which focuses mostly on corporate and private banking, exited a European Union restructuring process at the end of last year, which had banned it from acquisitions and imposed limits on the size of its balance sheet.

MTB, which is mostly active in rural areas and has a vast network of branches, has been working to transform itself into a full-service, or universal, bank to cut costs and boost operating efficiency.

The Hungarian central bank, led by Gyorgy Matolcsy, a close Orban ally, has repeatedly said are were too many universal banks in Hungary and has urged lenders to explore ways to consolidate and boost efficiency.

MKB and MTB said a merger would enable the new business to cut operating costs and downsize the branch network.

“I have repeatedly said in the past few years that Hungary’s interests and the strengthening of the banking system would be best served by increased Hungarian ownership and fewer banks,” MKB’s Balog said in the statement.

Reporting by Gergely Szakacs, editing by Louise Heavens and Mark Potter

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