RPT-UPDATE 3-Credit Agricole cuts costs to spur profit growth

Thu Mar 20, 2014 11:44am EDT

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By Maya Nikolaeva and Matthias Blamont

PARIS, March 20 (Reuters) - Credit Agricole outlined plans to increase net profit by more than 60 percent in two years' time by cutting costs and selling a wider range of existing products to customers to combat slow growth in its French home market.

Analysts said the plan unveiled on Thursday was sensible but not enough to make Credit Agricole stand out from bigger rivals Societe Generale and BNP Paribas which are due to present their strategies later this year.

The number-three listed French bank by market value told investors in London it aimed to increase net profit to more than 4 billion euros ($5.56 billion) by 2016.

The bank, which generates more than 70 percent of its revenue in France, has been selling assets and pulling out of markets such as Greece to meet tougher post-crisis regulation and combat tougher economic conditions. It returned to profit in 2013 after two years of losses.

The Credit Agricole Group, a network of regional savings banks that controls Credit Agricole, is one of the biggest lenders in France, serving one in three households and companies and nine out of 10 farmers.

However the 120-year-old semi-cooperative lender said it faces three years of stagnant retail revenues at home where unemployment is near all-time highs in a lacklustre economic recovery.

Analysts said Credit Agricole's growth plan was in line with other French banks which they expect to improve cross-selling of products such as insurance, cutting costs and keeping provisions in check in a bid to improve profitability.

Fund manager Francois Chaulet, of Montesegur Finance in Paris, said he still preferred BNP Paribas and SocGen because they had completed the process of bolstering their balance sheets.

"Credit Agricole is still focused on strengthening its capital base and being a conservative bank," he said.

Credit Agricole is also following rivals by promising a higher capital return to investors. The bank will increase its dividend payout ratio to 50 percent in 2015 from 35 percent in 2013, with a cash component of about 50 percent.

Credit Agricole said it was aiming to cut 520 million euros in costs over the next three years to lift its return on tangible equity (ROTE) to 12 percent in 2016 versus 9.3 percent in 2013. This measure of profitability strips out intangible assets such as goodwill.

The bank is reviewing its branch networks in France - although it said it has no plans to close any - and plans to invest more in online services as high street banking declines.

MODEST REVENUE GROWTH

Shares in Credit Agricole, known in France as the "green bank" due to its historic roots in the farming community, were down 2.3 percent on Thursday, tracking a broader sell-off on European markets. They have risen 23 percent so far this year, outstripping a 1 percent rise in European banks.

The bank is targeting a 3 percent rise in annual revenue between 2014 and 2016, with most of the growth coming from its retail banking, asset management and insurance businesses.

Credit Agricole envisages 850 million euros in extra revenue from selling a wider range of products to customers, with savings and insurance business contributing most.

Customers, on average, currently buy seven or eight different products or services from the group, such as insurance or wealth management and the bank is looking to increase that.

Credit Agricole said its asset manager Amundi was targeting 1 trillion euros in assets under management by 2016, up 30 percent from end-2013, through acquisitions and partnerships.

It also expects a recovery in its retail operations abroad, especially in Italy and investment banking - business lines that were hit hardest during the financial crisis. (Additional reporting by Lionel Laurent and Alexandre Boksenbaum-Granier; Editing by Andrew Callus and Erica Billingham)

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