Santander hiring of ex-Bankia boss Rato dismays hard-pressed Spaniards

MADRID, Sept 18 Wed Sep 18, 2013 11:59am EDT

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MADRID, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Santander's hiring of Rodrigo Rato, former chairman of rescued lender Bankia , was met with dismay on Wednesday by those Spaniards doubtful that any top financier will be held to account for the country's banking crisis.

Rato, appointed by Santander to its international advisory board on Tuesday, is under investigation over allegations of fraud at Bankia in a court case that could drag on for years.

Spain's biggest bank said it valued the former International Monetary Fund chief's international experience.

For Spaniards who lost their savings in the banking crisis, or shares in Bankia's collapse, Rato is a reviled symbol of the country's untouchable business elite. His image is brandished at demonstrations demanding compensation for small investors.

But he is still a heavyweight in the ruling conservative People's Party and many business and political leaders credit him with turning the country around when he was economy minister in the 1990s.

"When there is impunity, you get a situation where people do not suffer politically, or money-wise, or professionally for what they have done," Rosa Diez, leader of the Union for Progress and Democracy party (UPyD) which asked Spain's High Court to open the investigation into Bankia, told reporters.

Smaller political parties like UPyD and social media led the backlash on Wednesday, though coverage was more muted in leading newspapers, fuelling accusations that they were unwilling to upset influential businesses.

"Santander is a big advertiser, and many newspapers are indebted to the banks," said Ignacio Escolar, editor of eldiario.es, a left-leaning online news site.

"Santander is free to hire who they want, but someone who is involved in a court process...has repercussions for its image, or at least it has repercussions in society," he said.

Rato became one of the faces of Spain's banking crisis after Bankia needed 22.5 billion euros ($30 billion) in aid last year, in a record bailout that pushed the country to ask for European funds to patch up banks unable to cope with a property crash.

The rescues added to the pain of Spaniards already battling a deep recession and soaring unemployment.

Rato had overseen a seven-way merger of former savings banks that became Bankia and the group's 2011 stock market listing.

He was ousted less than a year later, shortly before it was bailed out, leaving hundreds of thousands of ordinary Spaniards nursing losses on the shares they bought.

Rato became the subject of an investigation into allegations of fraud, price-fixing and falsifying accounts in connection with the listing, along with 32 other Bankia board members. He has denied any wrongdoing.

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Rato, who also joined the advisory board of Telefonica's European and Latin American units earlier this year, has been a member of Santander's advisory board.

One source with knowledge of the situation said Santander Chairman Emilio Botin valued Rato's political and economic analysis and was likely behind his re-hiring.

Hiring former politicians is common among international banks and Santander already counts a former prime minister of Portugal among other heavyweight external advisers.

"It's very valuable to have someone who can organise meetings with decision-makers on other continents," said Guido Stein, associate professor at the IESE business school.

But many Spaniards were incredulous over the appointment, and "Rodrigo Rato", "Bankia" and "Santander" were among the trending topics in Spain on social media site Twitter.

"With unemployment battering the country, the one who does find a job, again, is Rodrigo Rato," said one Twitter user. ($1 = 0.7491 euros) (Additional reporting by Robert Hetz, Jesus Aguado and Elizabeth O'Leary; Editing by David Cowell)

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