Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bullshit And Bulerías In Bankia

It's now over 3 weeks since I last blogged on the subject, but the crisis over the bailout of Bankia rages on. As each week passes we learn more about the colossal disaster that the bank has become. The amount needed to save Bankia seems to rise almost every day and the disastrous handling of the issue by the government came dangerously close to provoking a run on deposits in the bank.

More than just being another episode in an ongoing financial crisis, the Bankia situation does show every indication of being a full blown scandal. How is it that a bank which announced profits of millions of euros and which was still talking of making new acquisitions just a couple of months ago has been revealed to be a wreck with such enormous losses? 

The government is doing everything it can to avoid any kind of investigation into what has happened, criminal or otherwise, and is getting some help from the PSOE. The PP have tried hard to put all the blame on the outgoing governor of the Banco de España, who does deserve his share of criticism. But then we are still left wondering what exactly Rodrigo Rato and friends were doing in return for the millions they took out from presiding over the bank?

As usual in these situations it's the little people who take the hardest hit. Given the lack of interest from the big investors, Bankia mobilised its whole commercial network to sell shares to its own customers. I know personally of one case where €3000 was simply deducted from an account without consent in return for what would now be a virtually worthless shareholding. The 'mistake' was of course corrected, but I wonder how many other cases there were.

The PP have blocked the possibility of parliamentary investigation, even though they could easily use their parliamentary majority to convert any investigation into a circus. What should be happening is a full criminal investigation to examine what really happened inside the bank. Best wait for that sitting down, as the Spanish like to say.

It says an awful lot about the way this government operates that the announcement of how much public money Bankia needs was made by the newly appointed president of the bank, with a figure way above anything which had been suggested by government ministers. Then there is the (deliberate?) confusion over the way in which the bank will be rescued. True to their ideology, the government is making it fairly clear that there will be no general public benefit in return for €19,000 million of help.

The only response to criticism of their handling of the crisis has been attempts to distract public attention. Anything will do, the spat with Gibraltar, the chorus of whistles that greeted the national anthem at the Spanish cup final. All with the help of servile newspapers who find day after day that Bankia is not a significant enough issue to make the front page.

Spain's government is being crushed by the weight of its own mediocrity and inability to respond to the situation. After Mariano Rajoy's surprise press conference the other day, there are now not so many criticisms of his refusal to explain events. Because it has become evident that he doesn't have an explanation to offer, merely a collection of recycled cliches. The problem with this government is that they have the capacity to make the outcome of the crisis even worse for Spain because of their determination to politically manipulate the situation the country faces.

Some will be happy at the suggestions that the EU is now demanding even more cuts in return for possibly relaxing a budget target that nobody seriously believes to be achievable in the first place. However, the argument that this is a crisis of public debt looks more and more frail every day. It's about public resources being used to prop up the private sector. There are some absentees from the list of those accused of mismanaging the banking crisis, because those who control Spain's biggest banks have been instrumental in driving the disastrous strategy. Happily, not everybody is taking this situation lying down.


Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Rato Leaves A Sinking Ship

The news yesterday that Bankia is going to be bailed out by the Spanish government has put the stability of the Spanish banking system back at the centre of the country's ongoing crisis. In the process the government has managed to simultaneously create a certain degree of nervousness about the safety of deposits with Bankia as well as significant outrage over the proposed bailout - which could involve as much as €7000-10000 million of public funding. We don't yet know how a government which previously claimed it would use no public money to bail out the banks is going to manage the turnaround, Friday is the bad news day. The commitment on no public bailouts is now just another of those broken promises which sees virtually nothing remaining of the few concrete commitments that Mariano Rajoy made prior to the elections.

The surprising part of the announcement was that it came coupled with the removal of Rodrigo Rato as Bankia's president. Rato, at least until yesterday, was regarded by Partido Popular supporters as an economic wizard; based on him having been economy minister at the start of Spain's economic bubble. More recently he has just cashed in nicely on running the bank which holds a huge amount of devalued construction related assets and bad loans. Thanks of course to Rajoy's decision to place him as boss of Caja Madrid, Bankia's main component. Which makes it even more significant that such a powerful figure in the PP should be removed by a government of the same party. Because he was removed, it seems. The situation is made even more ironic by the fact that the move against Rato was spurred by a critical report from the IMF, Rato having been director general of that body until he walked away from that job before the shit hit the fan.

The whole Bankia situation stinks, and exposes in the process some of the false narratives that are used to justify the less well off sectors of Spanish society paying the brunt of the economic crisis. We were told that the fusion of the regional savings banks (the cajas) and their conversion into banks was a necessary step to clean up the mess left by the end of the construction boom. The cajas were bad because they are not run by professionals, was the story. Some story, because Bankia is now a bank resulting from this fusion process and all that has been created is an even bigger and more expensive monster. By the way, if things get really bad then don't expect the fund supposedly guaranteeing deposits to help account holders. That money has already been systematically ransacked to pay for a series of pointless fusions. 

What makes things worse is that Bankia has already received significant public funding, in addition to what would turn out to be very expensive state guarantees if the bank were to go under. Funny, isn't it, that when we are told no money is available for public services the situation changes so quickly when it's the financial sector that comes calling? Especially when we were repeatedly assured that the problems were being solved. Don't go asking about the regulatory role of the central bank. Spain's Banco de España has been largely absent as banks and cajas have struggled to survive. Largely because the governor of this institution, Spain's highest paid funcionario Miguel Ángel Fernández Ordóñez, has been far too busy in recent years lecturing ordinary Spaniards on how well they have been living and why they need a good labour market reform to sort that problem out. 

But at least we don't need to feel too sorry for Rato, he usually manages to land on his feet. It seems fairly likely that the economic terms of his departure will not be those set in the latest labour market reform for getting rid of employees.  It was his economic model that failed and led the country into this crisis, the structure of the banks makes little difference to the outcome when the dependency of the whole sector has been on building ever greater numbers of houses year after year based on the assumption of endless credit. Bankia is still stuffed full of PP appointees and the solution adopted to allow them to continue in their comfortable positions is unlikely to be favourable to public finances. In this situation it is Rato that has been left, perhaps to Rajoy's satisfaction, looking like a greedy banker.