What was Fortis?

Published by Thomas Herold in Corporate Finance, Investments

'Fortis' is explained in detail and with examples in the Corporate Finance edition of the Herold Financial Dictionary, which you can get from Amazon in Ebook or Paperback edition.

Fortis refers to the now defunct Belgian-based multinational financial giant that had huge presences in insurance, investment and asset management, and traditional and private banking around Europe and beyond it internationally. Up to the year 2007, the jointly Brussels- and Utrecht-headquartered company continued to grow and prosper with massive operations placing it in the slot of twentieth biggest company in the globe (based on its revenue). Yet the Global Financial Crisis proved to be the match and eventual ruin of the firm which dated back to 1990.

The home base of operations and greatest strength of Fortis N.V./S.A. lay in what observers call the Benelux nations Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Their banking operations proved to be substantial in these countries especially. They included commercial banking, retail network branch banking, and merchant banking operations. In insurance, the behemoth boasted lines including life, property and casualty, and health insurance. Its many and varied products sold via a range of brokers, independent agents, its own bank branches, and financial planners. The bank had listings on Euronext Amsterdam, Euronext Brussels, and the Luxembourg stock exchanges.

It was in the heart of the 2008 based Global Financial Crisis that the firm began to encounter serious problems after two decades of tremendous growth and success. The initial signs of weakness in the firm appeared after Fortis joined a consortium of banks which were jointly acquiring ABN AMRO, the Dutch banking and investment giant. The Belgian/Dutch bank was partnered with Banco Santander of Spain and Britain’s Royal Bank of Scotland Group in this takeover transaction. Yet the Belgian-based insurance and banking giant ran into critical problems in being able to finance its commitment for this joint acquisition target. The writing was on the wall for Fortis at this point, as the hedge fund wolves were looking eagerly around the world for signs of weakness to exploit in shorting and ruining financial companies to make vast profits at the expense of these faltering banks and insurance companies.

In no time at all, Fortis had to be jointly bailed out by the governments of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg working together, as the bank was as large as the financial positions of the governments of Luxembourg and Belgium. At this point once the bank had been saved from collapse, it was split apart into four different pieces.

French banking giant BNP Paribas bought up the Belgian bank branches and its operations and renamed them BNP Fortis Belgium. BNP acquired the rights to the brand name for Belgium in the transaction. Meanwhile the Dutch government proceeded to nationalize all of the failed bank’s Dutch banking and insurance subsidiary companies. In an ironic twist of fate, the Dutch national government re-launched them as their former buyout target of ABN AMRO. Eventually the Dutch split this up into Fortis Bank Nederland for the banking operations. Meanwhile the failed insurance and investment banking companies (including the Dutch insurance arm) they split off into ASR Nederland.

What little remained of the once-enormous company Fortis were its nascent insurance operations in Belgium and Luxembourg. The firm still proved to be the biggest insurance provider in Belgium. As the company had lost the rights to its brand name there to BNP Paribas, it was forced to change its name to Ageas by April of 2010. This greatly reduced insurance business in the smaller two of the three Benelux nations is all that remained of the once mighty Fortis Holdings. This turns out to be one of the most striking examples in Europe of the devastating consequences of the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression in the 1930’s. It helps to explain why the crisis became known as the Great Recession and Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

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The term 'Fortis' is included in the Corporate Finance edition of the Herold Financial Dictionary, which you can get from Amazon in Ebook or Paperback edition.