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Philippe Brassac recently met with Crédit Agricole staff based in China. This gives us a good opportunity to look back on the Group’s history in the country – a history with a number of different sources, highlighting the complementarity between the Group’s businesses operating in China today.

Late 19th century: initial contact and first establishments

The first business relationship with a Chinese institution seems to have been established in 1872 by Crédit Lyonnais1 at a time when it was one of the leading financiers of the silk industry, which relied heavily on imports. But it was not until the first half of the 1980s that Crédit Lyonnais set up a branch office in the country. However, it took an interest in the Chinese economy very early on, sending a fact-finding mission that toured the country from 1898 to 1900.

The expedition included two engineers from the financial research department, two interpreters, two cooks and ten drivers for the caravan of fifteen or so pack horses and mules. From Beijing to Hankou, the mission covered over 2,000 miles in 150 days, collecting a large amount of data on China and its economy, particularly in relation to the coal and steel industries, salt harvesting, cotton, silk and the spinning industry. The idea was to identify potential business trends that Crédit Lyonnais could seek to exploit.

This mission was documented in detail by engineer Félix Leprince-Ringuet: armed with a camera, he came back with over a hundred shots of industry, crops, landscapes and day-to-day life in the communities encountered. An account of the journey was published in the July-August 1902 of Le Tour du Monde magazine.

The first establishments on Chinese territory belonged to Banque de l’Indochine2. As early as 1894, it took over the Hong Kong branch of Comptoir national d’escompte de Paris (CNEP). Hong Kong, then under a British mandate, proved to a be a vital market for the bank: huge volumes of Indo-Chinese rice were exported from its port, and advances made in Indochina to help buy harvests were repaid there. Hong Kong is the oldest Chinese establishment falling within the scope of the Crédit Agricole group as it exists today.

Four years later, in 1898, Banque de l’Indochine opened a branch office in Shanghai. Further offices were opened in 1902 (in Canton and Hankou) and 1907 (in Beijing and Tianjin). As a merchant bank, the company was involved in a great many projects, and Banque de l’Indochine’s Chinese branches soon accounted for a significant proportion of its overall balance sheet. It played an active role in a major infrastructure project: the construction between 1897 and 1910 of the Yunnan railway, linking Haiphong in present-day Vietnam with Yunnanfou (now Kunming). With the new railway up and running, Banque de l’Indochine opened two more branch offices, in Mengzi (1914) and
Yunnanfou (1920).

Geopolitical tensions in the post-World War Two period hampered Banque de l’Indochine’s operations and the bank had to close its last remaining branches in 1957, bringing down the curtain on its sixty-year history in China. At the same time, operations at its Hong Kong branch continued. In 1975, Banque de l’Indochine merged with Banque de Suez and Union des Mines to form Banque Indosuez. In its first step towards establishing a new network, the newly formed company opened a representative office in Shanghai in 1983.

The origins of Crédit Agricole in China: a novel approach

Crédit Agricole’s international expansion is traditionally held to have begun with the opening of the Group’s Chicago branch office in 1979; but dialogue between Crédit Agricole and the Chinese banking community dates back to 1978. Overseen by Anne-Elisabeth Iba-Zizen, Head of Asia-Pacific at CNCA’s International Development department, this dialogue was an opportunity to educate the Chinese about Crédit Agricole’s history and organisation.
The Group was able to play its organisational structure to its advantage: its cooperative foundation housed inside a public institution chimed with the Chinese way of thinking. Crédit Agricole staff were also able to develop a feel for Chinese business practices during this period.

In September 1982, CNCA Chief Executive Jacques Bonnot signed a technical cooperation agreement with the Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) that paved the way for an ongoing relationship between the two institutions, including an intern exchange programme. Interns from ABC were hosted by CNCA and a number of Regional Banks to exchange best practice.

At the same time, still under the leadership of Anne-Elisabeth Iba-Zizen, Crédit Agricole helped broker a major Franco-Chinese agreement covering agriculture and food. The agreement allowed France to develop French exports and Crédit Agricole to help a number of its cereal-producing customers tap into this new market. This long-term effort to forge a relationship between the two countries was unusual in that, unlike many businesses that were keen to take advantage of China’s recent efforts to open up to the outside world, Crédit Agricole was focused on the medium-to-long term rather than immediate profit. Technical cooperation between Crédit Agricole and ABC allowed Chinese bankers to learn techniques for financing agricultural projects and Crédit Agricole staff to familiarise themselves with Chinese practices.

The approach was taken further in July 1985 when Crédit Agricole opened a representative office in Beijing. Supported by the Hong Kong branch office, this new entity was tasked with better identifying and supporting agricultural and agri-food business.

The contribution of Indosuez and Crédit Lyonnais

By acquiring Banque Indosuez in 1996 and then Crédit Lyonnais in 2003, Crédit Agricole expanded both the range of services it offered and its geographical footprint. Firstly, Indosuez’s high level of expertise in corporate and investment banking opened the door for Crédit Agricole to get involved in a number of infrastructure projects. The Regional Banks also benefited: in 1998, 47 of them ran projects in China via the Group’s Hong Kong delegation.

The private banking business also took off during this period with the creation in 1999 of CA Indosuez (Switzerland) SA, which continued to grow the business in Asia, and particularly Hong Kong, with nearly 150 employees. The Group’s presence in China was further expanded by the acquisition of Crédit Lyonnais, whose corporate and investment banking teams joined Crédit Agricole Indosuez to form Calyon (renamed Crédit Agricole CIB in 2010).

Vehicle finance with GAC-Sofinco Auto Finance Co.

Given the size of the automotive market and growing demand for consumer credit in China, in 2010 the Group helped establish Canton-based GAC-Sofinco Auto Finance Co. This joint venture between Crédit Agricole Consumer Finance and Guangzhou Automobile Group Co., Ltd. (GAC, China’s fourth-largest automotive manufacturer) celebrated winning its two-millionth customer in 2020.

Building up the asset management business

The Group started to build up its asset management business from 2008. That year, Amundi acquired a 33.33% stake in ABC-CA Fund Management Co. Ltd., a Shanghai-based joint venture with Agricultural Bank of China, the world’s third-largest bank in terms of Tier 2 capital and total assets. In order to continue expanding its asset management business, Amundi also established a Shanghai-based joint venture with Bank of China (BOC) in 2020. Amundi & BOC, 55%-owned by Amundi, is the first management company majority-owned by a foreign entity to be able to develop a range of wealth management products in China, thanks to a regulatory change implemented by the Chinese regulator in 2019.

 

2009: incorporation

Calyon and later Crédit Agricole CIB were originally established in China to serve the local needs of multinational customers. After operating as a branch office since 1991, Crédit Agricole CIB was incorporated in Shanghai in August 2009.

Since then, Crédit Agricole CIB China has helped Chinese large corporates with their investment and international trade operations as well as supporting financial institutions (notably major Chinese banks) in their efforts to internationalise financial markets. It continues to meet the local needs of subsidiaries of Group companies with a presence in China. Crédit Agricole CIB plays a key role in financing China’s real economy thanks to its financing and capital market activities. It is also a leading reference bank in helping Chinese financial institutions carry out green bond issues.

With its four business lines, the Group now has over a thousand employees in China. 

References

1Crédit Lyonnais was founded in Lyon in 1863. It joined the Crédit Agricole group in 2003.
2Banque de l’Indochine was established in 1875 for the purpose of developing and supporting trade in the then French colony of Indochina.