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ENERGY

How millions are being left out in the cold by Spain’s soaring energy prices

In her flat on the outskirts of Madrid, Pamela Ponce no longer turns on the heating despite the biting chill coming in through the windows.

How millions are being left out in the cold by Spain's soaring energy prices
Pamela Ponce at her home in Madrid. The 32-year-old says she hasn't been able to pay her electricity bills for the past three months. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

“The prices have gone up a lot, I have no choice,” sighs Ponce, a young Peruvian mother, her voice resigned.

On this bitterly cold January morning, the temperature outside is hovering around five degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit). And inside, it’s barely much warmer.

“It can also be very cold inside, above all when there’s no sun,” she says, walking through the three rooms where she lives with her mother and two children in Leganes.

This 32-year-old says she hasn’t been able to pay her electricity bills for the past three months with prices in Spain soaring by a staggering 72 percent over the last year, one of the highest increases within the European Union.

The hike has been in part driven by Spain’s excessive dependence on gas to produce electricity and the lack of a major power provider like in many other countries to help keep prices in check through reduced tariffs.

“Before I was paying between €35 and €60 a month but now, it’s more than €100, without even mentioning gas which has also gone up,” explains Ponce, who hasn’t worked since catching Covid which left her with severe after-effects, notably affecting her left hand.

“I just don’t know what to do,” says the former cleaning lady who admits she’s reliant upon her ex-partner to pay the rent and buy food.

“I feel like I’m drowning,” she whispers, her voice choked with emotion.

According to Spanish government estimates, around 4.5 million people in Spain are affected by ‘energy poverty’, either because they’re incapable of paying the energy bills to cover their basic needs or because they have to put a large part of their earnings towards them. 

In an attempt to heat the flat, Pamela has bought a heater that runs off a gas bottle which she moves from room to room depending on what they need.

“It’s cheaper,” she says. But everything else is strictly rationed.

“My kids only take a shower every other day (and) I generally cook for 2 or 3 days at a time so I don’t have to turn the cooker on so much,” she explains.

SPAIN-ENERGY-SOCIAL-POVERTY

Electricity prices in Spain soared by a staggering 72 percent over the last year, one of the highest increases within the European Union. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

More and more families affected

And there are countless others like her.

“More and more families are struggling to pay their bills” and “have to chose between paying for food or light at the end of the month,” says Sara Casas, head of environmental issues at the Spanish Red Cross.

Last year, Spain’s left-wing government announced a series of tax cuts to try and bring down household bills but even this has not compensated for the huge rise in prices.

According to the UOC, Spain’s largest consumer organisation, the average annual home electricity bill in Spain has risen from 675 euros in 2020 to 949 euros in 2021, a rise of 41 percent.

The previous record jump, in 2018, was 18 percent.

Vulnerable people, such as “single mums with children, older people with a low income and migrants” are particularly badly hit because many “struggle to get benefits because there’s a lot of red tape and you have to bring in a lot of paperwork,” says Casas.

Layering up, homemade heaters

According to an awareness campaign being run by Medicos del Mundo, some 6.8 million of Spain’s 47 million residents are suffering to one degree or another from “energy poverty”.

Such a situation brings with it “a higher risk of suffering from chronic bronchitis, depression and anxiety,” the NGO says.

One of those struggling is Raul, a 55-year-old computer technician who lives with his wife, daughter and 82-year-old mother-in-law in the
northwestern city of A Coruña.

“Whenever we turn something on, we have to think about how much the bill will go up,” says Raul who hasn’t worked since suffering a stroke in March 2021, with the family living off his wife’s salary.

“My neurologist told me I should avoid stress but it’s very difficult when you don’t know if you’re going to be able to pay next month’s bills,” he says, admitting they have barely switched on the heating this winter, despite the cold and the humidity.

“We bought a heated blanket for my mother-in-law” and “inside the house, I always wear lots of jumpers or coats,” he says.

He has also been trying to cobble together a home-made heater.

“It’s a temporary solution,” shrugs Raul, who says he is keeping his fingers crossed “that the prices will eventually come down”.

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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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