VIENNA Raiffeisen Bank International (RBIV.VI) (RBI) plans to expand further in central and eastern Europe and is optimistic the region's fragile economic situation will improve in the second half of this year.
Raiffeisen and rivals Bank Austria (CRDI.MI) and Erste Group (ERST.VI) are already the biggest banks in so-called emerging Europe and want to invest more in the region because of more dynamic growth prospects than the mature markets of western Europe.
Raiffeisen Chief Executive Herbert Stepic said stronger growth should emerge across the region in the second half of the year. He said the bank was looking for opportunistic deals in promising markets such as Romania, where the bank is already in the process of buying Citibank's (C.N) retail portfolio with more than 90 million euros in assets.
"More rivals will exit countries here and there for one reason or another in the years ahead, so further opportunities will arise for us," he told a news conference on Wednesday.
Stepic said he was looking at Romanian assets being sold by Greek or Cypriot banks, but was not keen to buy entire banks after the acquisition last year of Polbank, the Polish arm of Greece's EFG Eurobank Ergasias EFGr.AT.
Rivals are also looking to put more resources into the region. Erste Group said in February it had secured the resources to take advantage of a fragile recovery in emerging European markets. Bank Austria (CRDI.MI) is also looking to capitalise on growth opportunities in the region.
Raiffeisen, which in February reported that 2012 profit fell by around a quarter to 725 million euros (618 million pounds), is aiming to keep bad debt provisions for this year on a level with last year's because of the economic conditions.
"In light of the economic prospects, the situation remains tense in several of our markets. In 2013, we therefore expect a similar net provisioning requirement as in the previous year."
Net provisioning fell 5.1 percent to 1.01 billion last year. Bad loans account for around a tenth of RBI's lending portfolio.
Stepic was relaxed about the impact on foreign customers of a potential loosening of banking secrecy in Austria.
Austria said on Tuesday it would join Luxembourg for talks with the European Union on how to crack down on cross-border tax cheats, signalling an easing of Vienna's hard-line stance on bank secrecy.
"From RBI's perspective I see no adverse impact at all," the CEO said, adding that he could not speak for the rest of the group, which includes hundreds of small cooperative banks.
The bank reiterated that a capital increase remained an option depending on market developments.
Prospects for a share sale have kept Raiffeisen shares trading at around 8 times 12-month forward earnings, a discount to Erste's 10.5 times, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine, which ranks analysts' estimates according to their previous accuracy.
"We regard Raiffeisen as one of the most convincing bank business models in Europe with 14.2 million customers in (central and eastern Europe)," Kepler analyst Dirk Becker said in a research note.
But until the bank had addressed its capital issue it was difficult to value the stock because of potential dilution, he said.
The bank's shares were up 1.4 percent at 26.96 euros by 1336 GMT, lagging the Stoxx Europe 600 banking sector index .SX7P, which was up 2.9 percent.
(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Jane Merriman)