Global bank Santander hamstrung by Spanish heritage

MADRID (Reuters) - Banco Santander's SAN.MC red and white flame logo popped up around the world when Spain was booming, but now the country's fortunes have turned, the global bank is being scorched by the domestic blowback.

A man talks on a public phone in front of a Santander bank branch at Copacabana neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro May 22, 2012. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

It has come a long way since it was founded in 1857 in the northern Spanish port from which it takes its name, building a strong presence in mature markets such as the UK, and growth markets including Brazil, Mexico and Poland.

But it seems investors and depositors alike are struggling to see past the turbulence in its home market.

Its shares have dropped about 40 percent in the last year as the bank, along with Spanish rival BBVA BBVA.MC, has been lumped together with the rest of the country's domestic-focused lenders, which are in urgent need of more capital after a property boom abruptly turned to bust.

This was evident last month when British customers at Santander's UK subsidiary took fright and withdrew about 200 million pounds ($308 million) in deposits, spooked by the misfortune of Spanish lender Bankia BKIA.MC, which the government in Madrid was obliged to rescue.


“Santander and BBVA are in another league. Whatever they do in Spain has a limited impact on their balance sheet, and it (the share price fall) is unjustified collateral damage,” a senior Madrid-based financier said.

Dig into its profitability, and from Brazil to Boston, Santander’s presence in 10 major markets has kept it relatively insulated from the worst of the Spanish real estate collapse and the euro zone crisis.

Over the past five years, it has made 40.5 billion euros in attributable profit and paid out 24 billion euros to shareholders in dividends, while many of its rivals have cut or stopped their pay-outs.

In its most recent quarterly figures, 56 percent of its profits came from high-growth emerging countries such as Brazil and Mexico, while only 13 percent came from Spain and Portugal.

That has not translated into the bank's price to book ratio Of 0.53 - a measure of its shares against the value of its assets - which lags behind "safe-haven" banks such as HSBC HSBA.L, on 0.89, and JPMorgan JPM.N, on 0.66, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Even if Spain’s downturn worsens - the economy is forecast to shrink this year and next - the country accounted for only 26 percent of Santander’s total assets at the end of March, about the same as it has in Latin America and the United States, and less than the 29 percent held in the UK.

While the bank is likely to set aside more for bad loans in its home market after an external audit of Spanish banks commissioned by the government, few expect it to have to raise more capital.

“Banks like Santander will have to provision more, but Santander won’t need more capital,” one senior Madrid-based investment banker said.


Although British depositors did pull out cash in May when fears about Spanish banks mounted due to a rapidly worsening situation at Bankia, this amounted to just 1 percent of customer deposits.

That was in part due to Santander’s move last December to mitigate the perceived risk of being owned by a Spanish bank. The bank’s British subsidiary decided to make any transfers out of Britain subject to the consent of the UK regulator, the Financial Services Authority (FSA).

“With the full cooperation of Santander UK, the FSA has in place arrangements which require the FSA to give permission to any transfer of funds out of the UK by Santander UK,” an FSA spokesman said.

Santander Chairman Emilio Botin stressed in March at the bank’s annual meeting that subsidiaries such as the UK unit were “autonomous in terms of capital and liquidity”.

This structure has reassured some.

“You can’t completely ignore the contagion from Spain and the headline risk, but Santander UK should be able to operate as a separate entity in a worst-case scenario,” said Robert Montague, Senior Investment Analyst, European Credit Management, which manages $9.5 billion invested in European credit markets.

“In the case of Santander’s business model, its subsidiaries are fairly independent in terms of funding, and its UK operations also report publicly on a standalone basis,” Montague added.

That has not stopped some depositors, notably a handful of local councils, from withdrawing their cash. But such moves are illogical, says Ben Bennett, credit strategist at Legal & General Investment Management, one of the UK’s biggest investors.

“It’s not something that’s specific to its balance sheet that is putting it under pressure; it’s just purely an association with a Spanish parent company,” said Bennett.

“When you start talking about the worst-case scenario, the whole argument is a systemic one. That’s an added reason why it’s illogical to target these banks in the UK which have exposure to Spain because actually ... you’re probably questioning banks that have nothing to do with Spain,” he added.


There has been no sign of a depositor flight from Santander in Mexico, where the bank had customer deposits of 26.1 billion euros at the end of the first quarter.

The Mexican banking and securities commission said it was in continuous contact with Spain’s central bank as well as with the head offices of banks that have units in Mexico and is confident Mexico’s banking system insulates domestic subsidiaries from distress at their foreign parents.

“In Mexico we have worked for more than 15 years to create a regulatory framework for subsidiaries with clear rules on capitalization and limited exposure to their parent banks, which we believe is a strength of our banking system,” a spokesman for the regulator said.

It is a similar tale in Brazil, where there has been no sign of any depositor flight. Santander has been overcapitalised in Brazil since it listed publicly there in 2009. In the first quarter, the Basel ratio of Santander Brasil was 24 percent, well above the average of 14-15 pct of its main competitors as well as the regulatory floor of 11 percent.

As such, regulators are not concerned about Santander Brasil’s capital position, despite occasional rumours that Santander is repatriating capital to Spain.

Local Santander executives have repeatedly denied this, and Santander Brasil CEO Marcial Portela recently said: “The only way to send money to headquarters is through dividends.”

Brazil remains a bright spot for Santander, representing 25 percent of the group’s overall profit, surpassing headquarters in Spain last year. The bank expects this number to rise to 30 percent in the next couple of years.

($1 = 0.6521 British pounds)

Additional reporting by Elinor Comlay in Mexico City, Aluísio Alves in Brazil and Tommy Wilkes, Steve Slater and Douwe Miedema in London; Editing by Will Waterman