With consolidation creating an elite group of investment banking giants in the United States, some banks are getting out to focus on other areas.
The Dutch banking and insurance giant ING Group is the latest institution to put its U.S. investment banking division under review, even while some of its European peers are closing deals to buy prestigious investment banks.
Citing accelerated consolidation in the U.S. market, ING Group said this week that it will reassess its U.S. plans and concentrate on its core business.
The Amsterdam banking company bought the Minneapolis insurer ReliaStar Financial Corp. in September and is poised to close a deal for Aetna Financial Services of Hartford, Conn. ING Group also has retail banking business in the United States.
In a conference call with analysts Tuesday, Cees Maas, ING's chief financial officer, said that though investment banking has potential to make money for his company, it does not favor a truly global strategy.
However, ING executives said they have no plans to tinker with investment banking operations in Central Europe, Latin America, and Asia. The bank's U.S. asset management operation will not be touched, they said.
In backing away from investment banking here, analysts said that ING Group is discarding a three-year plan to build out the U.S.-based investment-banking unit of its ING Barings subsidiary. ING acquired the troubled Barings Bank in 1995 after the British bank sustained huge trading losses at the hands of a rogue trader.
ING Group is not the first player to review its U.S. investment banking business in the face of consolidation.
Prudential Securities is exploring options for its investment banking arm, and plans to focus on retail brokerage.
ING Group "decided that they didn't really have the scale to compete with the major players in the world of investment banking," said Tim Proudlove, an insurance analyst at Daiwa SBCM Europe.
Those players now include UBS, which recently merged with Paine Webber Group, and soon will include the institutions to be created by the Credit Suisse Group deal for Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette and the Chase combination with J.P. Morgan.
However, Mr. Proudlove added, "It was a bit of a surprise, a bit of a U-turn strategy."
Competing against the likes of Chase/Morgan, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs "is going to be very difficult" for ING, said Tom Burnett, president of Merger Insight, New York.
"Where is the company going?" he said. "Clearly," he added, toward concentrating on "life insurance and life insurance-related financial services" - offering products such as annuities and retirement planning. ING is "always going to be a small player in the banking sector, but in the insurance sector, they could end up being in the top five," he said.
It is unclear how many of ING's 1,800 employees in New York will lose their jobs after the restructuring or leave sooner as a result of the announcement.
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