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BANKING

Spain has a new ‘mega bank’ as La Caixa and Bankia merger approved

Directors from CaixaBank and Bankia Thursday approved their merger into Spain's biggest lender in a move which will transform the landscape of Spanish banking.

Spain has a new 'mega bank' as La Caixa and Bankia merger approved
Photos: AFP

A source close to the deal said the board of directors of both banks approved the merger, details of which will be made public on Friday.    

The negotiations involved Bankia's biggest shareholder, the Spanish government.

The merger creates the country's largest bank with combined assets of around €664 billion ($787 billion) in Spain, Renta 4 Banco analysts say, putting the new entity ahead of Santander or BBVA, both of which have a more international presence.

Under terms of the deal, shareholders in CaixaBank, Spain's largest domestic bank, would hold 75 percent of the new entity, while Bankia shareholders would take the remaining 25 percent.

The Spanish state, which currently holds just under 62 percent of Bankia, will hold a 14-percent share in the new group, press reports said.   

In 2012, the Spanish government stepped in to save Bankia from collapse, spending 22 billion euros ($26 billion at current exchange rates) to bail out a bank that was seen as a symbol of financial excess at a time when the Spanish economy was mired in crisis.

The huge merger comes in a very difficult economic context for Spain which has been particularly badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with gross domestic product collapsing by 18.5 percent in the second quarter.

The deal should enable the two banks to reduce costs and offers them “a way of trying to improve profitability,” said Xavier Vives of the IESE Business School.

 

Job cuts loom

Another advantage of the merger is the geographical footprint of each bank, with Bankia more present in Madrid and in the centre of the country, while CaixaBank is well-established in the northeastern Catalonia region, said Robert Tornabell, a banking specialist at ESADE business school.

The financial structure of the deal will allow CaixaBank to access tax breaks worth “several billion” euros, thus providing the new bank the wherewithal to “finance staff restructuring and branch closures,” he said.

Press reports suggested the takeover would result in nearly 8,000 jobs being axed. The two banks currently employ 51,000 staff spread across 6,000 branches.

Despite the staffing issues and the competition concerns raised by the deal, which will create a bank that will manage nearly a third of all Spain's home loans, the Spanish government has welcomed the tie-up.

“There is a process under way,” Economy Minister Nadia Calvino said last week, pointing out that the European authorities have long been encouraging consolidation in the banking sector.

 

Recovering taxpayers' money

“With this deal, the government is getting rid of one big headache,” the Cinco Dias business daily said recently.

Since the Bankia bailout, the government has been trying to offload its 61.8 stake in the bank but economic context has never been right. For now, it has only managed to recover 3.3 billion euros of the 22-billion payout.   

Even if its stake in the new entity will be reduced to just 14 percent, that should bring in more money to the state coffers because the new bank will be much more profitable.

However, it will take “several years” for the state get back a sum which will not end up being very much, Tornabell said.   

The tie-up will mean the name Bankia disappears from the high street — a name associated with multiple scandals, particularly that of its floatation in 2011 which attracted thousands of small shareholders who faced ruin several months later when the share price collapsed.

Several months later, the government stepped in and the bank was nationalised.

Bankia's former management team is currently on trial for fraud and falsifying its balance sheet ahead of the failed floatation and if convicted over the scandal, former boss Rodrigo Rato is facing eight-and-a-half years behind bars.

The court is expected to reach a verdict soon.

By AFP's Emmanuelle Michel 

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MONEY

Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.

READ MORE:

Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 

 

Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.

Santander

Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.

BBVA

The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.

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