Top French bank Societe Generale reported a 39-percent slump in 2011 net profit on Thursday, reflecting a radical balance sheet clearout of bad debt from Greece and the US subprime home loan crisis.
Net profit of 2.38 billion euros ($3.70 billion) reflected a particularly weak performance at the investment banking arm, with Societe Generale's overall fourth quarter net profit crashing 87 percent on a 12-month comparison.
"In the space of a few months, Societe General significantly reduced its balance sheet through the targeted disposal of corporate and investment banking assets in order to remedy the growing scarcity of US dollar liquidity and reduce its capital needs," chief executive Frederic Oudea said.
"The effects of the Greek situation were dealt with by continuing to improve the balance sheet of (the bank's) local subsidiary and absorbing the impact of this country's sovereign debt write-down."
The bank said it had written down its Greek government bond holdings by 75 percent, more than the 50 percent headline target being worked out as part of another bailout for Athens and which in practice is expected to be 70 percent.
Oudea's remarks offer an insight into a period of extreme tension on interbank markets in the second half of last year, and notably a shortage of dollars for banks seeking to refinance their lending operations.
At the time, market sources suggested that some French banks were having particular difficulties in obtaining dollars and leading central banks took exceptional action to boost the availability of funds to banks.
The problems arose in a context of general aversion to risk because of uncertainty about the global economy and the eurozone debt crisis, and because new rules require banks to strengthen their reserve capital levels sharply to create a larger buffer against future crises.
These factors meant banks tried to cut risky assets on their balance sheets and to reduce lending, which in turn slowed business activity.
Societe Generale's net result for the year was sharply below average analyst forecasts of 2.72 billion euros but its share price gained 0.78 percent to 22.55 euros, while overall the CAC 40 index added 0.09 percent.
In the fourth quarter, net profit fell nearly 87 percent to 100 million euros, largely owing to a loss of 482 million euros at the investment banking arm where net profit for the year plunged 63 percent to 635 million euros.
Retail banking profits in the fourth quarter were flat at 302 million euros but for the whole of 2011, they rose 16 percent to 1.4 billion euros.
Net banking income, an overall measure of profitability showing the margin between the cost of interest on deposits and the return on lending, fell 3.0 percent to 25.6 billion euros.
The results statement showed a clear strategy of strengthening shareholders' funds, including retained earnings, by paying no dividend for 2011.
With the strategy of reducing bad risks and raising capital, Societe Generale can claim like rival French bank BNP Paribas to be meeting more stringent capital reserve ratios ahead of time.
Societe General said it was confident of achieving the required ratio of 9.0 percent under the more stringent Basel III rules coming into force by the end of 2013.
The bank accelerated the disposal of bad risk assets held on the balance sheet indefinitely by 16.1 billion euros. These assets, a problem since the US subprime home loan crisis sparked the global financial crash in 2008, amounted to 33 billion euros in 2010.
The restructuring of its BFI financing and investment arm where these assets were lodged, involves the shedding of 1,500 jobs of which 880 are in France, and generated a charge of 176 million euros.
The bank made an extra provision in the fourth quarter of 162 million euros for the fall in value of its holdings of Greek government bonds, taking the total of Greek provisions for the year to 890 million euros.
All of the exceptional items, including write-downs of goodwill, revaluations of portfolio holdings and of assets sales, reduced net profit by 853 million euros.