The problems of teaching old banks new tricks
France's nationalization of 36 more commercial banks has had one unforeseen result: It has reduced the level of independent scrutiny of the French economy.
The three largest deposit banks in France, Banque Nationale de Paris, Credit Lyonnais, and Societe Generale, were taken over in 1945 by the ''government of national union'' led by Charles de Gaulle.
But now the bulk of bank employees, including their economists, are state employees. Bank economic publications have become more bland than ever. And some employees feel restrained in their comments to the press.
''Our main shareholder is the government,'' noted an official at a newly nationalized bank. ''We have to go with it and heed its position.''
An economist at another bank complained that his freedom of speech had been curtailed, that he had to be careful criticizing government economic policy.
''I could be fired,'' he said, recounting threats from a Socialist member of Parliament when he said in a panel discussion that the government's prediction of 3 percent growth in the economy this year would not be fulfilled. (Since then the government's forecast has dropped to 2.5 percent.)
For most employees and for the public, however, nationalization of the banks has made no noticeable difference. ''There has been no major change in the staff ,'' noted one banker. Some bank chief executives were replaced, mostly by men with proven managerial experience. But the No. 2 managers have kept their jobs, whether politically sympathetic to socialism or not. And most are not.
Why did the Socialist government go to the political trouble (including a three-month parliamentary debate) and the financial cost of taking over the banks?
Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy has explained: ''Banking institutions will show greater awareness of the general interest in distributing credit and will add this too-long-neglected criterion to those they already take into consideration in deciding when to grant loans.''
Said Marc Vienot, the general manager (No. 2 executive) of Societe Generale: ''The government clearly wants the banks to be closer to the orientation of its policy.''
In an interview, Finance Minister Jacques Delors said the government would respect the fundamental banking ratios, such as the adequacy of reserves. But he expected the banks to make more long-term investments and to act more like investment bankers in lending to both private and nationalized firms.
''They have to be taught how to change their ways of thinking and working,'' he said.
The banks got their first lesson last month when Mr. Delors insisted they use 6 billion francs (almost $1 billion) to help nationalized industrial companies, many of which have been suffering losses. Four billion francs were to be used to buy their shares; two billion for long-term loans.
The outspoken Mr. Vienot found the government's action ''disquieting,'' noting that the banks may get no adequate return on their new shares for 10 or 15 years.
''My fear is that we might hear this sort of language every year,'' he said in an interview. ''Are we to be judged by new criteria, say the financing of the public sector?''
Mr. Vienot suspects that profits will not be the only reference now for bank performance. And he's convinced that despite some official reference to the independence of the banks, there will be more influence of government on the credit system.
Unanswered yet is whether that influence will be gentle suasion, or strict orders. Finance Minister Delors said he wants to be nice - not nasty - about introducing new and unorthodox ways to the banks. ''It will take time, changing the way people think,'' he said.
Mr. Vienot worries that the traditional banking ratios, regarded as assurances of banking security, ''may not be seen by Socialist ministers as sacred cows.''
However, he sees the banks as receiving some protection from their international position. ''They have to be regarded as banks by the foreign community,'' he said.
For one thing, the government will need financing of France's foreign indebtedness. French nationalized banks and companies have been borrowing heavily abroad, helping cover France's sizeable balance of payments deficit.
Another protection, Vienot added, will be the government's need to help exporters. The major banks have facilities around the world. Societe Generale, for instance, has offices in 75 countries.
''This will be our protection against abuses by too much political influence, '' the banker concluded.
The fate of the newly nationalized private banks has yet to be determined. Mr. Vienot noted that these banks had successfully competed for decades with the three, much larger, already-nationalized banks, partially because of their private nature.
Now he wonders if these banks, which together make up some 15 percent of the banking market, will be merged in batches, say, of three or four - or if they will be merged into the ''big three.'' For the time being, the three previously nationalized banks have been prohibited from acquiring them.
Apparently some government officials would favor ending up with four to six ''universal'' banks, the creation of a number of regional banks, and the development of more investment banks to finance industry.
The government's decisions should be revealed when it puts a new banking law before the National Assembly later this year.
Some observers here suspect that foreign banks, which have some 3 percent of France's deposits and some 5 percent of credits, will benefit from the nationalization of their competitors.
Wealthy individuals, it is thought, may believe they will have more privacy with these remaining private institutions. But so far, according to at least one foreign banker, there have been no line-ups of new customers at the door.