Last June, José María Roldán, president of the Spanish Banking Association (AEB), released the phrase that some had been waiting to hear in public for a long time: “It seems to me that a unified employer’s association would have more power to defend the interests of Spanish banking in Europe ”. Next, he wanted to remove the official status of the statement, saying that it was “a reflection” that he did not have to do, since he had just announced that he will leave the mandate in April 2022. But he insisted: “It seems important to me that such solutions can be study. That said, the future will tell (…). United we are stronger and it is an element that I do not think we should give up in the future ”.
Sources in the sector, who request anonymity, are clear that this sentence is said with all transcendence and with the aim of transferring the debate to the CECA, which groups together banks from savings banks, savings banks that maintain their model and banking and non-banking foundations. “This issue must be valued by the leadership of both AEB and CECA. The collaboration with the CECA is magnificent. We have very similar interests: since we are all banks, many of us listed on capital markets, the similarity of positions is very high and the collaboration is very great, ”Roldán added.
Among the banks, some executives argue that this movement would have the support of supervisors, who do not fully understand the advantages of having two employers in the same sector. Some of the main players believe that now that there are only three major banks left, Santander, BBVA and CaixaBank, it might be more practical for them to be in the same association, since their interests and concerns are similar.
Two different models of control
But there are many drawbacks to achieving the AEB-CECA merger. The first is the top management model. Among AEB entities, there is a commitment to an executive independent of the banks, such as Roldán, from the Bank of Spain, an appointment that raised criticism from revolving doors. In fact, some sources assure that the banks are already looking for a substitute and this has given rise to offering to test a person of consensus with the CECA. However, this institution is under the presidency of Isidro Fainé (Manresa, 78 years old), who is in charge of the La Caixa Banking Foundation, and who has two years left in office.
Therefore, it is not only who can command, but also if they are independent or belong to the entities. In the CECA, the last president who did not come from a box was Juan Ramón Quintás, who left the Confederation in 2010, in the midst of a crisis of these entities and in the face of the disputes between Fainé and Amado Franco, president of the Ibercaja Foundation, for taking the command of the association.
At the helm, Santander or CaixaBank?
Together with the dispute over the model and the person, power is at stake. Traditionally, in the AEB, Santander has been the bank with the most influence capacity because it is the largest. However, Miguel Martín, president of the AEB from 2006 to 2014, changed the statutes so that the greatest weight would be held by the entity with the most assets in Spain, not throughout the world, as it had been up to that time. Martín did it with the approval of the banks and to attract the CECA entities to join the AEB, although he did not succeed.
With these rules, now the leader by size in Spain is CaixaBank, which could give it a majority in quotas and votes, displacing Santander and BBVA. However, the bankers consulted do not believe that Ana Botín, president of Santander, ceded the supremacy in that organization, although they remember that she also presides over the European Banking Federation. But these sources also do not consider that Fainé would be willing to remain in the background in an association as powerful as the one that brings together all the Spanish banks could be. There are also several managers who recall that the National Court has declared Fainé investigated for the case of the alleged espionage carried out by CaixaBank through the hiring of retired commissioner José Manuel Villarejo, something that, depending on how the case progresses, could take away its strength in the face of a hypothetical formation of a new banking organization like this one.
Regardless of the hypotheses, the CECA questions Roldán’s main assertion that a single employer would have more power in Europe. “The Spanish banking industry is currently represented at the highest level in European and world associations. From CECA we hold the Presidency of the World Institute of Savings Banks and Retail Banks and the Vice Presidency of the European Group of Savings Banks and Retail Banks through our president, Isidro Fainé. This position gives us a leading role in front of the authorities. ” It is clear that if the CECA were dissolved, Fainé would not be able to continue occupying both positions.
Two associations that already collaborate
On the other hand, the CECA also questions that it would give them more strength as lobby in Spain: “The two associations collaborate very closely on all issues in which we need to join forces. An example of this has been all the exceptional measures put in place as a result of the pandemic, such as ICO guarantees or moratoriums, as well as our interest in working together on the role that the banking sector should have in the Recovery Plan. There are other areas in which we have distinctive elements in our associates, such as the Welfare Projects, the link with the territories or the focus of our activity in Spain ”. And they add that the CECA exists because there are some banks that want to continue to belong to it, since nobody is forced to be associated. “They could leave the CECA, but they haven’t.”
The structures of both organizations also require a careful plan for a possible merger. The CECA group, including CECA Bank and Funcas, are about 500 people, compared to just over 30 who work at AEB. In addition, CECA Bank has a great market value, in addition to 1,000 million of its own resources, so it should be sold before the possible unification so that the current shareholders (89% are in the hands of the CECA partners) would receive the value it has.
From the organizational point of view, the CECA is bigger because it was created to provide services that the boxes did not have and at cheaper prices. Its history of associative collaboration has little to do with that of the banks, although when the large savings banks were formed, now banks, the founding spirit has been partially diluted. The historical data are also different: the CECA was formed in 1928 at the initiative of the Federation of Savings Banks Vasco Navarras while the AEB was born in 1977, assuming the functions of the Higher Banking Council since 1994.
Some banks that were former savings banks consider that this union would make them lose their social roots and ties with the territories of origin, which today is a value that differentiates them from their competitors, and they believe that this is the true objective of the banks if they are unify. “But it will not be easy to avoid it,” they admit.