Rabobank takes over Friesland bank... inevitable consequence of scale and business model

Today, all the financial news in the Netherlands is dominated by the takeover, by Rabobank, of Friesland Bank. Both are banks that originated in the agraric sector, as cooperative organisations that support local farmers and communities. As such Friesland Bank was the only remaining independent cooperative bank still standing. But now, the Competition Authority has immediately granted an 'express decision' to allow the merger between Rabobank and Friesland Bank. This means that the financial situation was serious and we may assume that the Dutch central bank (as a supervisor) chose to stimulate this merger between Rabobank and Friesland Bank (as is - in historical terms - their preferred way of keeping the bank sector healthy).

Now if we look at the earlier annual reports of the Friesland Bank we can see what was going on. Over the last five years, the majority of increase in income was due to the private equity function of the bank. So Friesland Bank was a bank and a private equity house at the same time. With the private equity part blossoming in the recent years, while at the same time being a risk factor. Meanwhile, Friesland Bank in some areas (for example processing of securities transactions) needed to cooperate with other banks to ensure a good provision of services. And then, when the market outlooks became more grim, the bank as a whole seriously suffered from the fact that 1) new banking rules led to a higher capital requirement for private-equite activities 2) the revenues of investment went down alongside the general gloomy outlook in markets and investments.

What is interesting is the tempo in which this take-over occurred. Because in essence, the risk profile of Friesland Bank (low revenue generating bank with risky private equity holdings) is of course no surprise to Supervisory Board nor to its supervisor: De Nederlandsche Bank. So one might wonder: what took them so long? What happened?

I think it's the combination of cultural and personal factors that may have slowed down this take-over. For that to understand, we must recognize that the Frysian Province of the Netherlands is a region with a healthy proud, and sometimes stubborn, attitude as to their uniqueness. They succeeded in getting their language to be maintained as an official administrative language in Friesland. They have the unique 11-cities skating race and many more customs. And it may have been this regional pride that may have stood in the way of their Supervisory or Executive Board of accepting the inevitable.

So while there is a lot more to say about this episode, it is fair to state that the Dutch central bank may now -after a number of well-criticized failures- pride itself in having safely managed and seen this transition though.