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Investors hold their nerve ahead of Catalan independence vote

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Many investors in Catalonia, from multi-nationals to home-buyers, have already voted on the Spanish region’s upcoming independence referendum: they are betting hundreds of millions of euros on it going down in history as a peaceful failure.

A volunteer (R) gives ballots to a man ahead of the banned October 1 independence referendum outside the University of Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain, September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

Despite concerns that Sunday’s referendum could be bad for business in the country’s richest region, potentially fomenting unrest and political instability, investment indicators as well as anecdotal evidence paint a picture of confidence.

“Right now, no investor believes this will become a different country overnight,” said Gerard Boix, a real estate consultant at Sotheby’s International Realty in Barcelona.

“We’re hitting records in sales this year.”

Spain has declared the referendum unconstitutional and says it has crippled the Catalan government’s ability to hold a credible vote, having seized referendum ballot papers, fined referendum organizers and warned voters against casting ballots.

Businesses and investors have shown no signs of panic, however, and initial falls in listed, Catalan-based companies such as lenders Caixabank CABK.MC and Sabadell SABE.MC and pharmaceuticals firm Grifols GRLS.MC have already been erased.

Catalonia attracted a fifth of Spain’s new company registrations in the first seven months of this year, more than any other part of Spain.

Only five months ago, with the referendum in prospect, Nestle NESN.S announced a 37-million-euro expansion to its instant-coffee factory in the region. And this year, Italian car-maker Ferrari RACE.MI opened its 100-million-euro theme park south of Barcelona, the Catalan capital and tourist mecca.

At Barcelona port, Europe’s fastest-growing, container traffic jumped 30 percent in the first eight months of the year.

The feud has plunged Spain into one of its biggest political crises in decades. Should the vote take place, a “yes” vote is likely, given that most of the 40 percent of Catalans who polls show support independence are expected to cast ballots while most of those against it are not.

Political analysts and most politicians believe the standoff could be resolved by a renewed dialogue between Catalan and Spanish authorities that would lead to a better tax deal and increased infrastructure spending for the region.


The city’s property prices have risen by 9.2 percent so far this year, according to property website Idealista.

Barcelona real estate agents also say most foreign investors in the top-end real estate market are going ahead, though one agent said some were holding back until after the vote.

“We have not seen a single hold-up, a single doubt,” said Artur Stabinski of Coldwell Banker.

The U.S.-owned estate agent handles purchases linked to Spain’s ‘Golden Visa’ scheme which allows non-EU nationals residency in return for certain kinds of investment, including 500,000 euros or more on Spanish property.

Coldwell Banker’s Prestige Barcelona office has nearly tripled its business linked to the Golden Visa program this year, Stabinski said, selling luxury properties to clients from China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

However, some buyers were cautious.

“I have at least 10 clients who are waiting until October,” said Mathieu Gimon, real estate agent for Fine & Country in Barcelona whose properties for sale include a 3.7-million-euro, six-bedroom apartment in the city.

Sotheby’s International said its international buyers were watching developments but were not backing out of deals due to the political climate.

If events in Catalonia defy the business community’s expectations, the fallout for investors could be dramatic. Madrid has said secession would lead to a 30 percent collapse in the Catalan economy, which is as large as that of Chile and draws over 10 percent of Spain’s foreign investment.

Multi-nationals are generally reluctant to comment on the referendum, but German car giant Volkswagen stressed the importance of political stability.

Volkswagen churns out 2,000 cars daily from its SEAT plant in Martorell, near Barcelona after announcing a 4.5-billion-euro expansion of the factory two years ago.

“SEAT is a company rooted in Barcelona, Catalonia and Spain. At the same time, it is a multi-national with a global vision and like any company needs a stable political environment to allow it to keep on investing to generate growth and jobs,” Ezequiel Avilés, a Barcelona-based spokesman for Volkswagen’s SEAT, said.

Editing by Mark Bendeich