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Banking group Nordea snubs Sweden with HQ move to Finland

Key Points
  • Nordea had warned it could move its HQ in March

  • In Finland, Nordea will fall under ECB supervision

  • First shift by major bank to avoid tough rules since 2008

The Nordic region's biggest bank, Nordea, said on Wednesday it would move its headquarters to Finland, dealing a blow to Stockholm's bid to become a financial hub.

The move, aimed at cutting the costs of complying with Swedish regulations, is the first time since the 2008 financial crisis that a major bank has shifted its headquarters to avoid tougher rules.

Nordea Bank branch in Helsinki, Finland
Tomi Setala | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Nordea said the move to Finland, where it would be supervised by the European Central Bank, would save about 1 billion euros in the longer term despite extra short-term costs.

It said the bank wanted a level playing field with rivals supervised by the ECB, which has since 2014 sought to establish common standards across the euro zone.

"The Single Supervisory Mechanism is an appropriate regulator for a bank of our size and complexity," Nordea CEO Casper Von Koskull told reporters on a conference call.

The bank, the ninth biggest by market value in Europe, said in March it could move HQ if the government hiked fees to cover the cost of winding up banks that fail, prompting the centre-left coalition to soften some terms.

Swedish Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson, a member of the Social Democrats, said she was disappointed but said tax revenues would not be affected. She said Sweden was looking at joining the European banking union, but a decision could take years.

"They want the security that the banking union provides, and that leaves Finland as the alternative that can provide that," Exane BNP Paribas analyst Andreas Hakansson said.

Nordea shares closed broadly unchanged.

Mixed blessing

Analysts have been divided about how moving the HQ would affect Nordea, once owned by the Swedish state, and Sweden.

Some analysts had expected lower capital requirements within the banking union would allow Nordea to lift dividend payouts. But Nordea said it would keep capital and dividend policy unchanged, although it said it would make long-term savings.

Sweden's demand for big capital buffers has acted as a stamp of quality for buyers of bank debt, lowering borrowing costs for Swedish banks, which partly explains why they are twice as profitable in terms of capital employed (ROCE) as European rivals.

But the move could reduce regulatory uncertainty for Nordea ahead of next year's election. Sweden's centre-left government has been considering ways to tax banks more heavily.

For Finland, the move's economic gains will be limited, but it raises hopes of a brighter outlook in the economy which is recovering from a decade of stagnation and has lagged behind Sweden and Denmark in attracting foreign investments.

We need to continue transforming ourselves: Nordea Bank CEO

The centre-right government has been keen to get Nordea to shift its headquarters to Helsinki, campaigning on Finland's membership in the euro zone and the EU's banking union, and predictable policy outlook.

"Welcome to Finland Nordea HQ. Finland's membership in the Banking Union provides a stable business environment," Finland's Finance Minister Petteri Orpo wrote on Twitter.

Losing Nordea will be a blow to Swedish prestige as it seeks to attract financial firms when Britain leaves the European Union.

The Swedish finance minister said the move could reduce risks to the economy from the outsized banking sector.

"Having a banking headquarters also comes with increased risks for tax payers," she said. "That is exactly why we in the Swedish parliament have found it important to have tough rules to safeguard financial stability."

Opposition politicians were fast to voice their dissatisfaction with Nordea's decision, although they didn't agree on who was to be blamed.

"Yet again Social Democratic policies lead to companies fleeing Sweden. We should be a country to which people and companies move, not the other way around," Centre Party leader Annie Loof told TT news agency.

Jonas Sjostedt, leader of the Left Party, accused Nordea of being greedy.

"To me, it is a matter of banks doing their part. The banks receive indirect support from society and have state guarantees, and they should pay back too," he told TT.