Page last updated at 05:18 GMT, Thursday, 28 August 2008 06:18 UK

Can Spanish banks lead survival charge?

By Katy Watson
Business Reporter, BBC News

Santander bank
Santander's recent profits have outstripped those of overseas rivals

Spain's relationship with the bull cannot be underestimated.

The imposing image of the black toro is found everywhere from whisky bottles to mountain tops.

But while bullfights always arouse passion and controversy, one thing is not up for debate at the moment: the direction of the Spanish economy.

And analysts are agreed that where markets are concerned, the bulls are fast-disappearing.

But while most of Spain's woes are the result of a faltering construction and housing industry, there is one area of the economy that until now has been storming ahead - banking.

As US and British banks have been writing off huge debts after investing in investments gone bad, Spain's banks have shaped up a little better.

Professor Pedro Schwartz
Anything that the bank invests in has to be on the same balance sheet...you can't hide under the table
Professor Pedro Schwartz
San Pablo University

Wide presence

One reason is that the country's banks were relatively unexposed to the US sub-prime mortgage market.

Instead, they channelled their energies into the Spanish market as well as investing in fast-growing economies like Latin America.

This has helped to strengthen Spanish banks says Professor Pedro Schwartz, of San Pablo University, in Madrid

"They are present not only in the UK but also in the States, also in Latin America and now are moving onto Asia.

"So you have these large banks sort of balancing their risks in one part of the world and in another."

Santander, the Eurozone's biggest bank, is an institution Spain can be proud of.

Profits rose 6% to 4.7 billion euros (3.8bn) for the half year to 30 June, compared with the first six months of 2007.

That is more than most banks can boast in the current economic climate.

And after buying up UK lender Abbey National in 2004, it has made an offer for Alliance & Leicester which is expected to win shareholder backing - a rare shopping spree in an industry that is struggling with huge write-downs.

Watchful eye

Santander and its rivals have also benefited from a prudent central bank.

The Bank of Spain learned some lessons during the Spanish banking crisis of the 1980s when around 50 Spanish banks holding 20% of the country's deposits went bankrupt.

Banco Espanol de Credito
Will Spanish banks emerge unscathed from the slowdown?

As a result, the Bank of Spain has kept a watchful eye over lending practices including preventing banks from using off-balance sheet investments such as structured investment vehicles (SIVs), which were the making of the US sub-prime crisis.

"Anything that the bank invests in has to be on the same balance sheet," says Professor Schwartz, adding that you "can't hide under the table" when it comes to risky investments.

The Bank of Spain also ensured that Spanish banks built up reserves in the good times to help with the bad.

All these factors , says Carlos Garcia, banking analyst at ING , have helped avoid some of the big problems, but the banks are not in the clear just yet.

"So far, because of their business mix, which is retail, because of the tight regulation, they are better placed than other banks in Europe, Mr Garcia says.

"The problem is that the economy is in a very bad situation and I think it's going to be a long process of downturn."

If you do not know your customers very well, don't lend them any money
Emilio Botin
Banco Santander

A recent report by investment bank Morgan Stanley warned that a sharp property downturn could spell disaster for Spanish banks which have invested heavily in the sector.

But the chairman of Spain's biggest bank is sitting pretty for the moment.

At the recent Euromoney Awards Ceremony, Santander's Emilio Botin even offered some advice to London's financial community.

"If you don't fully understand an instrument, don't buy it. If you would not buy a specific product for yourself, don't try to sell it.

"If you do not know your customers very well, don't lend them any money. If you do these three things, you will be a better banker, my son."

Economists will be watching Spanish banks carefully in the next few months as the country's economy continues to slow.

Only then will we know whether Spain's banks have heeded Mr Botin's advice and can avoid the pitfalls that their counterparts in the UK and US have experienced.



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