ING, UniCredit said to explore Commerzbank takeover

FRANKFURT • ING Groep NV and UniCredit SpA are lining up advisors to explore a potential takeover of Commerzbank AG after the German lender’s talks with Deutsche Bank AG broke down last month, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Dutch bank is working informally with boutique investment bank Perella Weinberg Partners LP, while the Italian lender is working with JPMorgan Chase & Co, the people said, asking not to be identified because talks are private.

UniCredit also has a long-standing relationship with Lazard Ltd and Joerg Asmussen, a former deputy German finance minister at the firm, they said.

ING and its rival have held on-and-off again talks with Commerzbank, though no formal negotiations are ongoing, the people said, adding that the process could take months.

UniCredit, in a statement after the market close in Milan, said it hasn’t signed any banking mandate “related to any potential rumoured market operation”.

European lenders are exploring the prospects for a Commerzbank takeover after the failure of talks on a combination with Deutsche Bank made it a target for stronger rivals. While UniCredit and ING already have significant German businesses, acquiring the lender would broaden their access to Mittelstand clients — the small and medium-sized companies that form the backbone of Germany’s economy.

UniCredit CEO Jean Pierre Mustier has sought to downplay any interest in Commerzbank in recent days, saying in a Bloomberg Television interview on Monday that there are too many hurdles to European banking consolidation. At the same time, the bank has cleaned up its balance sheet and pledged to bring down its holdings of Italian sovereign debt, reducing risk and making itself more attractive as a potential acquirer.

Reuters was first to report UniCredit’s advisors. The bank, in its statement, said it was requested by Italian market authorities to comment on the report, adding that it is fully focused on the successful finish of its 2019 strategic plan “based on organic assumptions”.

The bank may still need to overcome local opposition. Commerzbank labour representatives are strongly against a potential takeover by an Italian bank, a supervisory board member of the German lender said on Monday, without naming UniCredit. “A lot of blood will spill before we merge with the Italians,” Stefan Wittmann, a Verdi union official and labour representative on the lender’s board, said during a panel discussion in Berlin.

The bank — whose CEO has been buffeted by a money laundering scandal and disputes over his pay — recently held its investor day in Frankfurt, further highlighting the country’s importance for the bank. It offered to relocate its headquarters to the German city from Amsterdam and pledged to cut fewer jobs than the Commerzbank-Deutsche Bank deal would have required, according to Manager Magazin.

Overcoming potential resistance from Germany to a Commerzbank takeover by a foreign bank could be another obstacle for any interested lender. The German government owns about 15.5% in Commerzbank, making it the lender’s biggest shareholder by far. ING has already reached out to the government, people familiar with the matter have said. — Bloomberg