CNEP, a pioneer in international trade finance

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BNP Paribas Historical Archives

BNP Paribas Historical Archives

The Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris (CNEP) was quick to adopt a policy of doing business overseas and ran a global network to support and promote French trade.

Re-launching the French economy

Against a background of economic and financial crisis aggravated by the political events surrounding the Revolution of 1848, the provisional government of the French Second Republic was looking for ways to re-vitalise the economy. Accordingly it passed a law providing for the establishment of credit institutions in the country’s main industrial and commercial cities. In Paris, a number of figures from the world of publishing and bookselling , including Laurent-Antoine Pagnerre, Hippolyte Biesta, Louis Hachette and the Firmin-Didot brothers, got together to set up the Comptoir National d’Escompte de la Ville de Paris (CNEP). In 1853 the bank freed itself from State control, shortened its name to Comptoir d’Escompte de Paris (CEP) and diversified its business, rapidly becoming one of the top French financial institutions.

Main pavilion of the CNEP's head office at the14 rue Bergère in Paris, circa 1882 - BNP Paribas Historical Collections - Picture of the "Studio Chevojon"
Main pavilion of the CNEP’s head office at the14 rue Bergère in Paris, circa 1882 – BNP Paribas Historical Collections – Picture of the “Studio Chevojon”

Ambitious expansion in support of French trade

The signing of a free trade treaty between France and Great Britain in 1860 helped to steer the Comptoir’s activities towards world markets. In late 1860, driven mainly by its co-founder and Deputy Director of Operations Alphonse Pinard, the Comptoir began to make pioneering moves abroad, opening its first foreign branches in Shanghai and Calcutta, even before opening branches in the French provinces. This was the first time a French bank had created a branch network abroad from scratch. In the years that followed, new offices were opened on Réunion, and in Bombay, Hong Kong and then in London, Yokohama and Alexandria. In 1881, the Comptoir set up in the Australian cities of Melbourne and Sydney. Moreover, in a move which symbolised this expansion, the bank decided to completely rebuild its headquarters at 14 rue Bergère in Paris using state-of-the-art construction techniques. The facade was adorned with five medallions representing the five continents.

Édouard Hentsch, who was Chairman from 1874 to 1889, led the Comptoir in the direction of merchant banking and investment banking, taking part in numerous bond issues and making daring investments, for example in the Swiss railways. However, having been drawn into hazardous speculation on the copper markets, the Comptoir had to be liquidated in 1889.

The bank was subsequently re-founded under its original name of Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris (CNEP) and, under the leadership of Alexis Rostand, rediscovered its dynamism and regained its stability. The Comptoir set up systematically in countries engaged in trade with France, including Egypt, Madagascar, Tunisia and Morocco. The Comptoir became the best-represented French bank in the United States, through the intermediary of the French American Banking Corporation (FABC) which it set up in 1919.

CNEP advertising, 1960 - Copyright: Havas - BNP Paribas Historical Archives
CNEP advertising, 1960 – Copyright: Havas – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

A prudent post-war strategy

Thanks to a firm policy of risk diversification, the Comptoir steered clear of all dangers and found itself the third-largest deposit-taking bank in France, being nationalised in 1945. The Comptoir was the first bank to provide medium-term export credit, a novel instrument for financing imports of essential raw materials, which proved a great success. From the 1950s onwards, however, the bank suffered from the repercussions of decolonisation and preferred to focus more prudently on its acquisitions in the United States, Europe, India and Australia.

On 4 May 1966, against a background of restructuring and consolidation in the banking sector, the Finance Ministry announced the merger of the Banque Nationale pour le Commerce et l’Industrie (BNCI) with the Comptoir to form Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP), where Henry Bizot, Managing Director, then Chairman of the Comptoir since 1958, was appointed Chairman.

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