Fortis Names New CEO After Shares Plunge

By: AP
By: AP
(AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

(AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands - Fortis NV named a new chief executive officer on Friday, after the banking and insurance company's shares fell 21 percent over worries about its solvency.

Filip Dierckx, 52, was appointed to replace Herman Verwilst, who was named interim CEO in July after the abrupt departure of Jean-Paul Votron.

Dierckx previously led Fortis' banking arm. Verwilst is to remain on the management board, Fortis said.

Assurances from the Fortis' top managers and financial authorities that the bank is solid failed to reassure investors, as did a new plan to sell up to $14.6 billion in assets if necessary to shore up its finances.

Shares in the Dutch-Belgian company tumbled to 5.18 euros ($7.56), their lowest level in more than a decade. They have lost nearly three-fourths of their value since January.

Fortis has been in difficulty since it took part in a three-bank consortium last year that acquired ABN Amro in a 70 billion euro ($111 billion) deal that was the largest takeover in the banking industry.

Fortis' current share price "does not reflect the value of our company," Verwilst said at a news conference in Brussels, Belgium before his resignation. He said he was "flabbergasted" by the sell-off.

Belgium's top politicians also tried to soothe markets. Fortis has dual headquarters in Brussels and in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme called on investors to remain calm and promised that customers would not lose their money in any case. Finance Minister Didier Reynders said the bank has "absolutely no solvency problems."

The company said in July it needed to raise 5 billion euros ($7.3 billion) in additional capital by 2010 to maintain solvency targets as it absorbs operations from ABN Amro that it bought for 24 billion euros ($35 billion) last year.

At current stock prices, the combined company is worth just 14 billion euros ($20.5 billion).

Dutch Finance Minister Wouter Bos repeated that his ministry must give final approval before ABN's retail banking arm — the largest in the Netherlands — is finally turned over next year to Fortis, which is under Belgian oversight.

For the moment ABN is operating independently, and its nominal owner is Royal Bank of Scotland PLC, which led the consortium that bought ABN last year.

Verwilst said that customers have pulled around 4.8 billion euros ($7 billion) worth of deposits since January, around 3 percent of the total, with "spikes" around events such as Lehman Brothers' recent bankruptcy filing.

Fortis rivals ING and Rabobank have eagerly targeted the bank's customers in the Netherlands.

Analysts and other observers have questioned whether Fortis will be able to raise the 5 billion euros by selling assets or issuing debt in the current market.

The company said in a statement Friday it is now considering "a wider range of activities to be divested" than before and expects to raise 5 billion-10 billion euros ($7.3 billion to $14.6 billion). It did not specify what activities it will sell, but it said there was "concrete interest" for all operations it is selling, in insurance and banking, in the Netherlands and abroad.

"There is no doubt about it that we can come easily to this 5 billion euros," Verwilst said.

Verwilst blamed uncertainty over whether the $700 billion financial bailout plan in the U.S. will proceed for fluctuations in Fortis' share price.

"This does not affect the (underlying) value of a company like Fortis," he said.

Fortis spokeswoman Liliane Tackaert declined to answer whether the Dutch or Belgian national banks would step in to lend Fortis money or underwrite a share issue if all else fails.

Verwilst repeated Friday that the company has no plans to issue more new shares.

Fortis caught investors by surprise in July by announcing a share issue and canceling dividends to preserve capital.

That triggered a decline in shares, credit downgrades, and the abrupt departure of then-CEO Votron.

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AP Business Writer Aoife White contributed to this story from Brussels.


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