The new U.S. head of France's Caisse de Depots Group, Luc de Clapiers, has his hands full scouting out new business for the company.

But the hardest part of his job may be explaining just what Caisse des Depots et Consignations is.

"We're sort of the central bank for French savings banks," said Mr. Clapiers, 46. "We manage their deposits."

Established in 1816

That and a lot more. One of those uniquely French financial institutions, Caisse des Depots dates to 1816, when it was set up by the French government to safeguard deposits at savings institutions.

It has since grown into one of the world's largest financial institions managing about $340 billion in assets for its own account and on behalf of French banks and both institutional and private investors.

That includes some $450 million for U.S. investors and $2.5 billion for its own account.

It is not the kind of group that does business halfheartedly. When Caisse des Depots at long last set up shop in the United States earlier this month, it did so with a flourish, inaugurating not one but three units for asset management and securities brokerage at a bash for 500 at the Museum of Modern Art.

Unlike some foreign banks that have entered the market by buying U.S. brokers or asset managers, Caisse des Depots decided to go it alone.

"We felt we should be able to learn how to do things for ourselves," said Mr. Clapiers.

"When you buy an existing company, you're basically buying gray matter. If people leave, your assets can go down the drain overnight."

The group's primary aim is to sell French securities to U.S. investors and manage U.S. securities for itself and other investors. Mr. Clapiers said his immediate goal is to double the group's own assets in the United States to more than $5 billion in 1992.

Mr. Clapiers himself is no stranger to the U.S. capital markets.

He arrived in the United States in 1979 as general manager for Credit du Nord's New York branch. He left that bank to join Banque Worms in 1986 and then joined Caisse des Depots in 1989 to develop a U.S. strategy.

'We're Immune to the Economy'

Raised in the southern French city of Aix-en-Provence, the executive graduated from the Institute of Political Science in Paris in 1966 and joined Credit du Nord in 1969.

Mr. Clapiers lives with his two sons in Manhattan but escapes on weekends to Westchester County Airport, where he is taking lessons to get a pilot's license.

He expects the U.S. recession to have little impact on Caisse des Depots.

"We don't do lending, so by and large, we're immune to the economy," he said. "The fact that the economy is weak doesn't change the need for funds to manage money."

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