Why European banks failed to break the United States

Jamie Dimon was in London last week. Among other priorities, the CEO of JPMorgan was giving a boost to the US banking giant’s latest expansion drive – the rollout of its UK retail banking brand, through an online-only initiative.

JP’s boastful global ambitions contrast sharply with the diminished prospects of many European banks. In recent months, the roll call of lenders across the continent opting out of US operations has grown.

Last week, he appeared that the French BNP was looking to sell San Francisco-based Bank of the West. A year ago, the Spanish BBVA sold its American unit to PNC. Over the summer, HSBC sold most of its US operations to Citizens.

Citizens himself was part of RBS (now NatWest) for almost 30 years until the British group’s collapse and rescue forced a sell-off six years ago.

Independence from a foreign owner, especially a weak one, turned out to be a liberating experience. Listed on the stock exchange, Citizens, under the leadership of Bruce Van Saun (former financial director of RBS), has been able to attract quality bankers who would not have considered working for a subsidiary of a British group.

Part of it is rewards. Stock-based compensation is based on a more direct influence on the company’s fortunes. There is no risk of losing the capital allocation from the headquarters in London or Edinburgh.

At the same time, Citizens has embarked on targeted expansion – in commercial banking, mergers and acquisitions, and core investment banking. Overall, this translated into a tangible return on equity – a benchmark of profitability – of nearly 14 percent at last count, more than double the count when it was created from RBS and not far from that of JPMorgan 18 percent.

The fortunes of European-owned American operations have been less inspiring. Many foreign banks have been drawn to the size of the US market and the margins that tend to be larger than at home, not to mention an economy that has been looking better for years.

But none have been able to claim the scale needed to build a credible business to compete with domestic players like JPMorgan or Bank of America. The advent of fintechs has added to the competitive challenge. The costs of regulatory compliance – much higher after 2008 – turned out to be disproportionate for small groups.

The net result? European banks have underperformed, attracting second-tier staff, second-rate clients and what a former bank boss calls a “serious negative selection issue” on strategy.

For a European lender, this is almost part of the strategy. Santander’s subprime auto loan business, Scusa, has grown significantly in recent years, attracting customers rejected by traditional banks. A further boost came from cash flow distributed under the U.S. Covid-19 relief program, which prompted millions of families to invest in items, including cars.

The US operation of Santander quietly overtook Spain, Brazil and the United Kingdom to become the main contributor to the group’s profits: it generated 2.8 billion euros in profit before tax out of a total of 11, € 4 billion in first nine months of the year. As it stands, the Spanish group appears to be a significant exception to the larger European fail-and-pull trend, with plans instead to grow further.

Some rivals argue that problems are brewing. At the height of a debt cycle, there is a danger that defaults, especially among subprime borrowers, will explode. The 2007-2008 subprime crisis showed the potential dangers in this area. Last year the group was forced to close a $ 550 million settlement with US authorities after being accused of aggressive lending practices, although current management points to reformed practices.

Another criticism of the US Santander operation is that it includes a mix of units: in addition to the subprime consumer lender and an investment bank, it has a wealth manager in Miami and a bank. low-profit retail in Boston. Synergies should however be strengthened in the coming months: a plan to buy out the 20% minority listed in Boston retail banking will allow deposits to be recycled freely to support the car loan business. Ana Botín, the executive president of Santander, started her career as a banker at JPMorgan. Whether, in the long run, it can really thwart the American ignominy model of European banks and somewhat mimic Jamie Dimon’s success, is an open question.

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