BNP Paribas' big US adventure

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Does BNP know what it's getting into in the badlands of New York?

Last week it emerged that the French bank is in 'advanced talks' to acquire Bank of America's US prime brokerage business - not exactly the most sought-after asset in the world, given all other banks dropped out of the bidding process - but an acquisition that would strengthen BNP's US investment banking franchise if it goes ahead.

At the same time, however, rumour has it that BNP Paribas is ditching some of the other US staff it worked so hard to attract over the past few years.

Dare we say BNP's US build-up appears to have been ill-timed?

There was, for example, the addition of a managing director and director to the US credit derivatives structuring team in October 2007, both of whom are now likely to be twiddling their thumbs on guarantees.

More importantly, the French bank started building its US presence in 2005, just when local talent would leave the bulge bracket only if lured by a super premium package.

On the other hand, BNP's current US foray looks a little better informed. The weak dollar and US banks' travails mean local talent is there for the taking. And it's not the only European bank eyeing up Wall Street - Barclays Capital and (even) RBS are doing the same.

"It's a great time for European banks to build in the US," says Michael Karp, chief executive of international search firm Options Group. "There's a lot of talent available and with the euro strong they can afford to compete. It's also seen as a positive that these are broadly-based institutions rather than pure investment banking houses."

"If they've got the stomach for it, now's a reasonable time to do it," confirms Simon Maughan, banking analyst at MF Global. "BNP Paribas' strategy is to go global and they can do that more cheaply in this environment."

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