TORONTO (Reuters) - The global financial crisis may have taken mergers among Canadian banks off the table once and for all as the breakdown of major financial institutions around the world has shown that bigger is not necessarily better.
Canadian banks tried to merge in the late 1990s, arguing they needed to become global players, or risk becoming irrelevant.
Now chief executives at Canada’s biggest banks say the crisis has showcased the resilience of the national banking system to the financial turbulence that has brought some of the mightiest global institutions to their knees.
“This concept of having to be bigger to be successful has been proven to be a flawed strategy,” Royal Bank of Canada Chief Executive Gord Nixon told Reuters in a recent interview.
Before the crisis struck, Canada’s No. 1 bank was often compared with Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS.L), which in the space of a few years went from being a domestic bank to a global presence. It was held up as an example of everything Royal Bank of Canada (RY.TO) should be doing, but wasn‘t.
Last year the once-mighty Scottish bank had to be bailed out by the British government and is now 70 percent state-owned.
Two would-be mergers in 1998 -- one between Royal Bank and Bank of Montreal (BMO.TO), and the other between Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CM.TO) and Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD.TO), were scuttled by then Finance Minister Paul Martin as public criticism of the plans ran high.
Had the acquisitions been allowed to be completed, many ask what that would have meant for the Canadian and even global banking systems today.
“Had Royal and BMO closed, would they have gone and bought Lehman Brothers?” said Stanley Hartt, chairman of Macquarie Capital Markets Canada and Canada’s deputy minister of finance in 1985.
Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection last September, shaking up the entire financial system.
“And had they done that, would they have had the discipline to say to those guys, ‘no, no, no, to heck with this 40 times leverage? And don’t take all those risks!',” Hartt said.
“Maybe history would have been different.”
These days everybody from the finance minister to bank executives and tellers brag about the stodgy conservatism that helped make the Canadian banking system the envy of the world.
“While I believe in the merit of mergers, especially in-country mergers such as in Canada, I think it’s highly unlikely, if not totally improbable in view of the recent events,” Rick Waugh, chief executive at Bank of Nova Scotia (BNS.TO), told Reuters as part of a round of interviews with the nation’s top bankers.
“This crisis today has completely killed that idea,” said Ed Clark, chief executive at Toronto-Dominion.
A decade ago TD was a major proponent of bank mergers.
In 1998, TD officers said that mergers between Canadian banks were necessary to give them the kind of size to be able to service clients’ growing capital needs and allow them to commit to larger loans.
Advocates for mergers also argued banks needed to be big enough to fend off unwanted takeover bids by foreign competitors that would come within a decade.
Ironically, Canadian banks are now hiring veteran bankers let go by rivals that were once feared but which have been forced to divest assets to raise emergency capital.
When Canada bank merger talk was hottest, banks said they were seeking technological and other platform synergies to make them more competitive globally, and many thought mergers were the quickest route to take.
“The logic of in-market mergers in the late 90s was very evident, because of the fact that the strategies were basically running in tandem,” said William Downe, who runs Bank of Montreal, Canada’s No. 4 bank.
“It was hard to differentiate and I think there were very significant technology synergies that could be realized at that time. But in the intervening decade, everybody had to modernize their platforms, and a lot of that has taken place,” he said.
For as long as the Canadian financial system is held up as an example of smart regulation and management - praised even by the U.S. president -- the political will to consider mergers is unlikely to develop again.
Additional reporting by Andrea Hopkins; editing by Peter Galloway