In the nineteenth century, British and Japanese banks dominated the Asian banking system. However, French banks tried to gain a foothold in the Asian markets and to support the development of trade. They gradually asserted themselves, mainly by financing import/export activities and by supporting large-scale projects. The Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris (CNEP), the forerunner of the BNP Paribas, was set up in 1848 and distinguished itself in this part of the world.
The Comptoir of pioneers
The 1848 Revolution in France came at a time of economic hardship. In the previous two years, 829 bankruptcies were recorded. The credit system was crippled due to mistrust that prevented discounts on drafts. To revive trade, Finance Minister Louis Garnier-Pagès supported the creation of national discount banks that were more flexible in the acceptance of drafts. Thus, the CNEP was set up on 10 March 1848. The institution experienced good growth. In 1853, an extraordinary General Meeting increased its capital and modified its statutes (the CNEP became the Comptoir d’Escompte de Paris – CEP – before re-adopting its original name in 1889).
It was from this decade onwards that the “Comptoir” really became one of the top-ranking French banks. Its success was partially due to its international development strategy. In this period, European industry needed to find larger quantities of raw materials. It was also seeking wider opportunities. CEP Directors anticipated these two trends and adapted their activities to these requirements.
Moreover, the CEP benefited from the free trade agreement signed by France and England in January 1860, which opened the doors of the British Empire to French trade. In January 1860, an Imperial decree authorised the bank to establish branches in France and abroad. This was a strategic shift. For the first time, a French bank set up a network of branches outside its borders, without going into partnership with foreign banks.
The aim was to offer banking support to the main trading companies along the busiest trading routes. The CEP met the needs of customers based abroad who wanted support from their bank. The Comptoir was the only institution to take that particular course of action by organising French credit in the countries of production. It opened a branch in Calcutta in 1860 and then in Shanghai in 1860. In France, it was not until 1867 that it opened its first branch in the provinces, in Nantes.
At the heart of trading
After Shanghai, the CEP strengthened its presence in China by setting up a branch in Hong Kong (1862) and then branches in Tianjin, Fuzhou and Hankou in 1886. In India, after opening its branch in Calcutta, the bank opened a branch in Bombay (1862). In Japan, the Yokohama branch was founded in 1867. The CEP based itself close to places of production, important trading areas and regions under British influence. But this was not all. In 1862, barely three years after the French arrived in Indochina, a branch was opened in Saigon.
The “Comptoir” financed its French customers’ purchase of local products and raw materials. Wine, woollen fabrics and European manufactured goods were imported from France, while cotton, silk, peanuts and tea were exported to France from the different Asian marketplaces. Despite problems with communication and climatic constraints, and even despite the global economic crisis of 1865-1866, the foreign branches became key players in the banking system. The CEP became the ‘French Bank’ par excellence.
In 1875, its pioneering method changed when the Banque de l’Indochine was set up. The CEP was one of the main founders of this institution that was able to stand up to British banks and make Saigon a strong trading and banking centre. The CEP and Banque de l’Indochine worked in close collaboration. The two institutions came to an understanding with each other to strengthen their positions in certain regions. The Banque de l’Indochine took over the Saigon and Hong Kong branches in order to focus on China and Indochina, while the CEP concentrated on India and Australia. This agreement allowed it to remain strong in the Asia-Pacific region, although it experienced a slight downturn in the late 1880s and early 1890s, as a result of the CEP crash and the Far East monetary and military crisis.
A long-standing presence for all the forerunners of BNP Paribas
The CNEP/CEP was a pioneer in Asia. But the Société Générale de Belgique, the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas, all forerunners of BNP Paribas, were active in Asia at different periods and to different extents.
Between 1890 and 1920, French interests in the Far East concerned the financing of railways in particular. A large-scale project to link the Chinese towns of Beijing and Hankou was implemented. The Société Générale de Belgique (BNP Paribas Fortis) formed a partnership with the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas and the CNEP in order to launch a public call for capital in France in 1898 and thus finance one of the largest projects of the time. This was a very wise initiative because the construction of this first Chinese railway line was the most profitable project in the world at that time.
The Générale de Belgique even set up a subsidiary in 1902, i.e. the Banque Sino-Belge, which would later become the Banque Belge pour l’Etranger. This institution experienced dynamic growth in Hong Kong where it had a network of 13 branches in the 1970s. The BNCI (Banque Nationale pour le Commerce et l’industrie) set up business in Saigon in 1947 and then in Hong-Kong in 1957, where its dynamism enabled it to establish itself as a leading institution. The BNP, formed from a merger between the CNEP and BNCI, capitalised on the two banks’ traditions and made Hong Kong its regional platform in Asia. In 1980, it was ranked as the top European bank there.
The BNP also financed some large Chinese projects, in particular the construction of the Daya Bay nuclear power plant between 1986 and 1993 and the thermal power plant in Black Point, Hong Kong in 1992.
Paribas organised two missions to Japan in 1907 and 1908. Interest in this country did not wane and the bank provided substantial aid for communities affected by the Tokyo earthquake in 1923. In the 1970s, the bank opened branches in Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.
In 2010, BNP Paribas celebrated 150 years of continued presence in India. This longevity sets a record in terms of a French bank’s presence abroad.
Continuing its efforts to open up to international markets, the group pursued its expansion in the Asia-Pacific zone. The project funding business is a key component of its strategy. As proof of this, the group is now present in 14 Asian markets, with two main centres in Hong Kong and Singapore. This is the sign of a special relationship that has been carefully nurtured for 155 years.