Belgian lender KBC announced today that it is staying in Ireland following a review of its operations here. In a statement released alongside its annual results this morning the bank said it was committing to "long term investment in Ireland". KBC had looked at several options for its Irish subsidiary including a potential sale or withdrawal from the Irish market. The bank said it will pursue sustainable growth which will be based on what it called a "digital first" strategy. KBC's group chief executive Johan Thijs said the bank believed Ireland was a sound and attractive market which presents opportunities. "Ireland will be a core market in which KBC will continue to invest," he said. KBC Ireland reported a profit of €227m after accounting for impairments on loans compared to €75m the previous year.

Wim Verbraeken, the chief executive of KBC Bank Ireland, said the bank will retain its current footprint and operations here, adding that it is "delighted and excited" for its customers and staff at the decision. It is also good news for consumers as it means more choice and the assurance of more competition in the banking market, Mr Verbraeken added. He said the banks plans to organically grow to become a relevant player in all aspects of a bank for retail and SME customers.

The bank's CEO said that not only are all KBC Bank Ireland jobs safe, more will come on stream over the next year. He said the bank is planning more than 200 recruitments for 2017, with about 100 of these new positions as it rolls out its expansion plans. He said a number of factors played into the bank's decision to retain its Irish operations, including the remarkable recovery of the Irish market and the country's "attractive demographics" as well as the turnaround performance of KBC Bank Ireland itself as it returned to profitability. He said the bank is in a good position to capture the opportunities that are out there.

Mr Verbraeken said the bank's plan is to grow organically in a number of areas where it does not have a strong market position. The bank would consider opportunities for a combination with another lender when and if they arise, but its first priority is organic growth, he added. 

On the bank's results, Mr Verbraeken said that KBC was fundamentally very happy with the outcome of 2016 as it was confirmation of what it had reported the previous year. He said the bank is now seeing things move in the right direction, adding that KBC's charges for bad debts were tapering off and in some instances the bank was able to writeback some of the provisions because cases were resolved. But what made the bank most happy last year was the strong inflow of new customers, with 70,000 new accounts opened in 2016. he added.

On the issue of tracker mortgages, Mr Verbraeken said the bank has reached out to a "certain number" of its customers who may have been affected by overcharging issues where banks wrongly prevented people from reverting to their tracker rates after they had fixed their home loans. But he declined to say how many of its customers may have lost their homes as a result, adding that a loss of ownership is very often multi-factorial and there can be a number of items at play. 

He said that KBC Bank Ireland was still working with the Central Bank on the issue. "We are not in a position yet to come out publicly on the extent of this matter within KBC - we are still in the process of working with the Central Bank," the bank CEO said. "We have already reached out to a certain number of customers where we have identified that we either made a mistake or failed in our contractual duties," he added. 

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MORNING BRIEFS - The price of residential development land in Dublin rose by 14% last year, according to the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland. The figures were compiled following a survey of 380 surveyors and estate agents and research commissioned by SCSI. The surveyors' body expects similar price rises for residential development land this year. It estimates 10% to 11% growth outside of Dublin and growth of up to 15% in the capital.

*** In a sign of financial pressure facing both sides in the Irish rental accommodation sector, brokerage Insure Plus - which trades as Rentassured.ie - has launched a specialist product offering insurance for landlords against rent default. It is offering to cover against default of up to 11 months rent or €48,000 which ever is the lower figure with average premiums of around 2% of rental income.

*** Sales of Jameson whiskey were up 16% last year in volume terms and 20% in terms of value according to the brand's owner Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard. That equates to 5.7 million cases sold in 2016. It marks the 27th consecutive year of sales growth for Jameson.