Barclays: Predator or prey?

  • Robert Peston
  • 18 Mar 07, 04:00 PM

Chris Hohn may have done it again. In 2005 the campaign of his TCI hedge fund against Deutsche Boerse's attempt to buy the London Stock Exchange precipitated nothing short of revolution in the ownership of Europe's stock markets - whose consequences are still being played out.

Now TCI has acquired a 1 per cent stake in the pride of Dutch banking and is trying to force it to dispose of overseas interests and consider selling itself whole to another bank.

barclays.jpgEnter Barclays. As the Sunday Times disclosed today, Barclays has been in touch with ABN to offer itself as a potential white knight against the gathering hordes of hedge funds.

I don't expect ABN to give itself over to the tender care of Barclays soon. Dutch banks never act precipitately. Apart from anything else, there'll be plenty of other European banks keen to "rescue" ABN, which may include our own Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds TSB (both of which would in some ways be a better strategic fit with ABN in view of their mix of businesses) and Scandinavia's Nordea.

In fact the outing of Barclays may turn out to be something of a mixed blessing for the UK's number three bank. The possibility that Barclays is about to supersize itself could prompt Bank of America to at last make its long-mulled attempt to swallow the Blue Eagle (Barclays and Bank of America held merger talks before B of A went on its last US shopping spree).

So TCI may have started dominos tumbling that could ultimately lead to those long-rumoured, seismically important but elusive banking events: a really substantial cross-border merger of two huge European banks and - whisper it - a mega Transatlantic banking deal.

Update 19:00 GMT: Barclays will confirm tomorrow morning that it has held exploratory talks with ABN. It feels obliged to make a statement, under UK listing rules. By contrast, ABN's preference would be to say nothing - though its silence, if maintained, will look very odd.

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