CALGARY – Bank of Nova Scotia previously offered to buy, and may still be interested in, Alberta’s provincially owned ATB Financial, finance minister Joe Ceci said Thursday.
Ceci, whose NDP government has called an election for next month, said in a news release aimed at United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney that Scotiabank is interested in purchasing ATB Financial from the Alberta government.
Neither Scotiabank or ATB Financial have confirmed the existence of such a proposal.
In an interview, Ceci said that when he was appointed finance minister in Rachel Notley’s NDP government he turned down a “detailed proposal” submitted by Scotiabank to purchase ATB, which provides small business loans in the province and operates a network of banking branches, offering personal banking and business banking accounts.
“The previous government said this (proposal) is something that is there, do you want to follow up with it?” Ceci said.
Ceci, as finance minister, “is accountable to the legislature for ATB” according to ATB’s own roles and mandate documents. He is also able to issue ministerial orders requiring ATB to maintain specific capital requirements.
Ceci’s release said that Scotiabank is “sitting on a detailed proposal to privatize ATB” but did not indicate whether that was a new proposal, which would indicate the bank is still interested in an acquisition, or the four-year-old proposal.
He could not provide the offer price from Scotiabank for ATB Financial. He couldn’t say whether he or the finance department was bound by a confidentiality agreement with Scotiabank over the proposal.
He said the offer was made before the NDP took power from the previous Progressive Conservative government. Alberta’s economy has seen multiple years of recession since that offer was allegedly made.
“As a Crown corporation, ATB Financial does not comment on the government, its decisions or the platform of any political party,” ATB spokesperson Karin Poldaas said in an email. She did not confirm or deny whether a proposal had been received.
“Whether ATB remains a Crown corporation is up to the government of Alberta,” she said, adding ATB is the only financial institution in over 100 communities in the province.
Scotiabank did not respond to a request for comment on the proposal or if it was still interested in buying ATB. Scotiabank already has most exposure to the province’s energy sector of all the big banks.
“We’ll be open to consulting with Albertans on how to grow ATB in the future,” Kenney said Thursday adding that he “wouldn’t be the least bit surprised that Canadian chartered banks were interested in ATB” but it would remain a Crown corporation if the UCP formed government.
He called Ceci’s assertion that he would privatize ATB an attempt to draw banks into the election campaign.
A former Alberta government minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it’s unusual but not unprecedented for a minister like Ceci “to reveal policies that were reviewed but never pursued.”
The person said that ministers aren’t normally bound by confidentiality agreements — so Ceci likely didn’t breach one — because they have too many other obligations, including to cabinet.
The person said that previous governments at various times had considered privatizing ATB Financial, which was founded in the Depression of the 1930s and has grown into one of the province’s largest Crown corporations, but had decided it was an important asset for maintaining capital availability in the province’s business sector.
“Alberta has a long history of not trusting the central Canadian banks,” they said.
ATB Financial’s last annual report, released March 2018, shows its net income increased 82 per cent to $275 million in 2018 from $151 million in 2017.
The bank’s assets declined 9 per cent over the same period, falling to $285 million in 2018 from $314 million in 2017.