One of the interesting exhibits in the pantheon of attempted explanations for the current financial crisis is the Kingdom of Spain. Spain had a massive real estate driven asset bubble, which has since collapsed. There is high unemployment, horrible public sector budget deficits, and lots of abandoned, half built housing projects around the coast. (In January, I struck up a conversation with some Australian engineers at the next table in a restaurant at lunchtime in the business district of Hanoi. Upon asking them how business was, they told me that there are lots of construction projects going on, but they were being undercut on price by Spanish and Italian companies. When domestic demand collapses, you look elsewhere).
And yet, Spain has not had a financial crisis. Spain’s banks are generally solvent and in good shape. One explanation of this is that financial crises in other economies are more a symptom of the economic crisis rather than its cause. Asset bubbles end badly. Government overspending has consequences.
One of Spain’s banks, Grupo Santander, has been expanding steadily throughout the world for a little over a decade. Unlike certain other banks of an expansionary nature (Royal Bank of Scotland, cough), Santander did not combine the acquisition of foreign banks with stupid lending, and so when the global banking sector fell in a heap a couple of years ago, Santander did what sound companies often do, and went looking for cheap assets. These included the small UK bank Alliance and Leicester, and the branch network and savings business of Bradford and Bingley (after its toxic assets had been nationalised by the UK government). Santander was an attractive buyer from the perspective of the UK government, as its expansionary frame of mind meant that it was unlikely to close branches and shed lots of employees.
My general inclination here is to compliment the management on running a good business. However, there is something disturbing, just the same. I have felt this for a while. Spanish financial institutions (and in truth Spanish organisations of all kinds) have a thing for building office complexes in the suburbs of Madrid that look like something out of a James Bond movie. It would be mean to say something about lingering residues of fascism here, so I will not do this.
However, the new headquarters (er, sorry, I mean the Ciudad Grupo Santander) shown in the above video really does appear to be a doosey. Professor Parkinson would no doubt have something to say here, but I feel oddly positive. However much I sometimes think that people who make corporate videos of this kind are best when placed on the B-Ark, being driven around by bright red Spanish banko-robots is certainly going to make marketing visits to foreign financial institutions a lot more fun. (Do they bring in Lewis Hamilton to race them on AGM day? Jokes about “augmented reality” in banking could go on and on, too).
It’s a shame that they have to build this sort of thing in Madrid, though. Building it (perhaps on an artificial island?) next to the private zoo in King Alfonso XIII’s weird coastal folly in the actual Ciudad (non-Grupo) Santander would be fitting, in some unexplainable way.
Link via Bruce Sterling.