BNP Paribas begins overhaul after fourth-quarter profit drop

BNP Paribas said it would kick off a three-year plan to save 2 billion euros ($2.69 billion) in annual costs and ramp up growth in Asia after its fourth-quarter profits were hit by Europe's weak economy.

France's No. 1 listed bank said the savings would come from simplifying its reporting structure and from investing in technology improvements. It said no business would be shut down.

While BNP is seen as robust and well-capitalized after a year-long drive to cut its balance sheet and shrink its holdings of risky euro zone sovereign debt, it is heavily exposed to mature European markets and is under pressure to show investors new paths to growth.

The bank said on Thursday it was eyeing a ramp-up in Asia, where it wants to lift revenues from investment banking and its asset-gathering Investment Solutions division to over 3 billion euros ($4 billion) by 2016, up from 2 billion in 2012. It is also aiming to hire 1,300 people in the region through to 2015.

"We see a low-growth scenario in Europe (in 2013)," BNP Chief Executive Jean-Laurent Bonnafe told Reuters Insider television. Acquisitions are not currently planned, he said.

BNP reported a one-third fall in net profit for the fourth quarter of 2012, to 514 million euros. Analysts had been expecting a profit closer to 1.0 billion, according to a Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S average forecast.

Among the troublespots were Italy - where BNP took a 300 million-euro goodwill writedown on its BNL subsidiary as part of an effort to raise its capital strength - and investment banking, where a rebound in revenues was hampered by a rise in loan losses on the back of one specific unidentified loan.

BNP said it would propose a cash dividend of 1.50 euros per share and said its focus on balance-sheet strength in 2012 had lifted its Basel III Core Tier 1 Ratio to 9.9 percent.

Smaller rival Societe Generale reported a wider-than-expected fourth-quarter loss on Wednesday and held back from giving any numbers or targets on its own plan to unlock cost savings over the next three years.

(Reporting by Lionel Laurent; editing by Mark John)