ABN Amro Loses Court Challenge to EU Ban on Acquisitions

ABN Amro Group NV lost a court bid to overturn the European Commission’s 2011 ban on acquisitions after a Dutch government bailout.

The European Union’s General Court backed EU regulators in preventing ABN Amro from making large takeovers, saying the bank’s priority should be to repay aid it received from the government ahead of any acquisitions.

Using state aid to finance acquisitions “is in breach of the principle” that government subsidies “must be limited to the strict minimum,” the Luxembourg-based court said today.

The Netherlands sought to loosen the shackles the European Union placed on rescued Dutch banks to stoke more vibrant competition in the country’s financial industry. Nationalized ABN Amro, once among Europe’s biggest banks, followed ING Groep NV (INGA), the largest Dutch financial company, into Europe’s courts to challenge EU bailout terms that they saw as too strict.

ABN Amro claims that a five-year acquisition ban imposed as a condition of state aid was stricter than those placed on other lenders. EU regulators approved recapitalizations of as much as 5.45 billion euros ($7.5 billion) after ABN Amro agreed to a ban on large takeovers. Other restrictions, including a ban on undercutting competitors for some products and a ban on coupon payments, have already ended.

EU Threshold

The EU restrictions didn’t stop ABN Amro from agreeing to buy Credit Suisse Group AG’s German private-banking business. The price agreed was below a threshold set by the EU, the bank said in December.

“We’re disappointed with the outcome,” said Jeroen van Maarschalkerweerd, a spokesman for the lender. ABN Amro will study the ruling and consider to appeal, he said.

ABN Amro is seeking to rebuild after it was nationalized, dismembered and merged with part of another bank. The Dutch government plans to sell the bank in an initial public offering in 2015 should the economy recover and the company succeed in cutting costs and bolstering earnings, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said last year.

The Netherlands bought Fortis’s Dutch banking and insurance units, including parts of the former ABN Amro Holding NV, in 2008 for about 16.8 billion euros, after the Belgian firm collapsed. The cost of the rescue later swelled to about 30 billion euros.

ABN Amro’s takeover ban hampers its ability to enhance efficiency after the nationalization left it with “dispersed assets which were subscale” outside the Netherlands, the bank’s lawyer told a court hearing in Luxembourg last year. A more tailored ban could allow ABN to make its private bank in Germany and asset-management operations in Brazil more efficient, and enhance the lender’s economic value for the state, he said.

ING had a price leadership ban on mortgages and savings in the Netherlands lifted in 2013 after winning a court challenge forcing the European Commission to re-examine terms of its rescue. The company agreed to establish a new Dutch consumer bank called Nationale-Nederlanden Bank, adding a “competitive force” in the Dutch retail market, the commission said in November.

SNS Reaal NV, the fourth-biggest Dutch lender, was also banned from making acquisitions in December as part of the EU approval of its nationalization last year.

The case is T-319/11, ABN Amro Group NV v. Commission

To contact the reporters on this story: Aoife White in Brussels at awhite62@bloomberg.net; Maud van Gaal in Amsterdam at mvangaal@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons at aaarons@bloomberg.net Peter Chapman, Jones Hayden

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