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VTB Plans Layoffs As Bad Loans Swell

VTB Group may lay off as many as 1,000 employees at its retail banking operations as overdue loans threaten to reach 8 percent of its portfolio, executives said Monday at the annual shareholders meeting.

VTB's nonperforming loans have tripled to 6 percent so far this year, chief executive Andrei Kostin said, adding that "an absence of losses in 2009" was "unlikely."

"To count on a profit this year would be difficult," he said. "Everything will depend on how quickly the Russian economy exits the crisis."

The grim predictions followed a similar warning from Sberbank chief German Gref on Friday.

VTB, Russia's second biggest lender, finished the first five months of 2009 with a net loss of 24.2 billion rubles ($776 million) under Russian accounting standards after pulling a net profit of 26.9 billion rubles for 2008.

Kostin said VTB was open to the possibility of a buyback program, in which minority shareholders would receive deposits in exchange for their stock. "I think we're prepared to consider this plan, if you can formulate how to do it," he told shareholders.

He also said, however, that it was still early to consider a buyback, since only two years have passed since VTB first sold shares to the public in 2007.

VTB's so-called people's IPO was one of several issues by state companies seeking to involve ordinary Russians in the then-booming stock market. VTB shareholders have clamored for the company to buy back their shares after the bank's stock plummeted from an offering price of 13.6 kopecks a piece to 3.45 kopecks, where it closed Monday.

The bank, which has received 829 billion rubles ($26.6 billion) in government support, is reviewing the costs of the properties it leases and considering a hiring freeze to cut back on expenses, financial director Nikolai Tsekhomsky said at the meeting.

"At VTB-24 we're talking about 1,000 people who are to be laid off or transferred to different jobs," he said, referring to the bank's retail arm.

While VTB had been considering an additional issue of 9 trillion shares, each valued at a nominal 1 kopek, that plan now seems unlikely, Tsekhomsky said.

"There's now a high possibility that we might place a significantly smaller sum," he said.

VTB angered shareholders in January when it said it might issue the shares this year, a move that would further devalue the shares and add to shareholders' misery.

In 2008 VTB was forced to help its foreign subsidiaries as operations in Ukraine, Georgia, Austria and London ended the year in the red, as was the newly formed VTB Europe, Kostin said.

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