Is Brazil About to Drag Down Spain’s Biggest Bank?

The timing could not have been worse.

By Don Quijones, Spain & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.

In July last year, an analyst working for Banco Santander Brasil did something he shouldn’t have. He warned the firm’s private banking clients about the economic risks posed by the reelection of Brazil’s scandal-tarnished president, Dilma Rousseff. Those risks included a sharply devalued Brazilian real, rising interest rates, runaway inflation and tumbling shares.

When the analyst’s report went public, it provoked outrage from Rousseff’s party, which saw it as a direct intervention in the country’s general election. Santander’s now-deceased CEO Emilio Botin was given a choice: either he castigated the analyst and rejected his findings, or his bank’s extremely cozy ties with the government of its most profitable market could be in danger.

It was not a difficult decision. Within days the analyst was fired for “making a mistake.” Now, a year and two months later, it’s obvious that the analyst’s warnings were spot-on. Rather than firing him, Santander should have listened to him.

Instead of reducing its exposure to Brazil’s fragile economy over the last year, as HSBC has done (read: Does HSBC Know Something Others Don’t), Santander has doubled down on its bet, forking out €4.7 billion on the acquisition of the remaining 25% of its Brazilian unit.

A Slap in the Face

The timing could not have been worse. Yesterday, Brazil’s already troubled economy was given another long-expected slap in the face when Standard & Poor downgraded the country’s debt from investment-grade to junk status.

The impact was immediate. Brazil’s currency plunged from 3.78 Real to the dollar to 3.9. It’s currently hovering at 3.88. Just a year ago, when news of the government’s Petrobras scandal began hitting and the economy’s biggest threats – a weakening China, the abrupt end of the commodity super cycle, a strengthening dollar, and floundering internal demand – were beginning to surface, the currency was clocking in at 2.35 Real to the dollar.

In other words, it has lost about 40% of its value against the dollar in the last 12 months. S&P’s latest downgrade could be very bad news for Banco Santander and all of the other Spanish banks and corporations that have effectively gone all-in on Brazil. For a long time, Grupo Santander’s Brazilian division served as the bank’s biggest global profit center, but that came to an abrupt end early this year when the group’s UK banking arm breezily overtook it.

Shares at Santander’s Brazilian unit have slipped 15% in Sao Paulo since the end of June. Meanwhile the banking group’s shares on Spain’s benchmark exchange, the IBEX 35, have plunged 23% over the last year. As Bloomberg reports, since early August, the shares of both Santander and Spain’s second largest bank, BBVA, which is particularly exposed to Mexico’s weakening economy, have tumbled more than an index of European bank stocks:

While a focus on emerging markets helped the banks weather the [DQ: domestic] financial crises of recent years, it now leaves them exposed as those economies weaken. A blow to earnings would make it harder to build up capital without tapping investors. Santander, which already turned to shareholders for funds earlier this year, still has a lower capital buffer than many large European peers.

Barely Concealed Fear

The problem is not just that Brazil’s decade-long era of economic development has ended; it is that an extended, deep recession in Brazil is almost certain to drag down much of Latin America with it, a region in which Santander has a vast portfolio of operations, from Mexico in the north to Argentina and Chile in the south.

Brazil’s economy represents a staggering 56% of South America’s combined GDP. And at this rate it is heading towards its longest recession since the 1930s. To draw a parallel, that’s the approximate equivalent of the economies of France, Germany and the UK plunging deep into recession together. Just imagine the effect that would have on all the other economies in Europe?

As for Santander and all the other Spanish corporations that have bet their futures on the Latin American economy, they’re having difficulty enough just concealing their own fears.

A couple of days ago, Grupo Santander’s CEO Ana Botín, who was anointed Chair of Santander’s board after the death of her father last year, announced a shake-up of the bank’s leadership in Brazil. Sergio Rial, hired by Botin in March, will succeed Jesus Zabalza, who has run Banco Santander Brasil since April 2013.

“Collateral Damage”

All of which smacks just a little of desperation. So, too, does the petit comité hastily arranged this week between the CEOs of Santander, the Spanish telecoms giant Telefónica, the energy behemoth Iberdrola, and Brazil’s finance minister, Joaquim Levy. As El Confidencial reports, the companies fear that a downward revision of the country’s credit rating, as has just happened, would wreak untold “collateral damage” on both Brazil’s markets and their subsidiaries operating there.

Damage control was clearly the order of the day. According to José María Álvarez-Pallete, the CEO of Telefónica, whatever happens, the telecoms giant will continue investing in the country, where it expects to spend €6.2 billion on its fibre-optic network between 2015 and 2017.

“Although GDP fell 1.9% in the first quarter, the situation is nothing like what happened in 2002,” said Iberdrola’s Ignacio Sánchez Galán. “In the intervening years, 50 million people have been lifted out of poverty and a huge stabilizing force, the middle class, has been created.”

What Galán and Álvarez failed to mention is that Brazil’s current crisis is unfolding against a backdrop of rising global financial instability. The three most important factors underlying Latin America’s economic travails – the abrupt end of the commodities super-cycle, a strengthening U.S. dollar, and the gathering exodus of hot money – are completely beyond the control of the region’s governments or central banks.

No amount of positive thinking will mitigate the effects of these forces on the real economy. As Galán himself acknowledged, his company’s clients were already beginning to struggle to pay their invoices. Meanwhile José Antonio Álvarez, CEO of Santander, admitted that defaults and bad debt are on the rise in Brazil. And that is precisely how financial crises spread.B y Don Quijones, Raging Bull-Shit.

Even chief financial alchemist Draghi is unable to prevent gravity from taking hold. Read… Investors Get Jittery As Spain Enters Whole New World of Pain

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  10 comments for “Is Brazil About to Drag Down Spain’s Biggest Bank?

  1. robert h siddell jr says:

    Yes but there will be a lot of company. If not next week, soon enough. The whole global bubble was fueled by loans of printed fiat money but now even 0% isn’t low enough to keep the bubble afloat.

  2. michael says:

    I say bring it on. Long over due…….

  3. NotSoSure says:

    Would Don be willing to analyze this:

    We all come here to learn something, but if the link above is correct, then what is the real reason why people are fretting so much about Brazil? Sure the boom times are over, but 300 billion dollars of reserves is nothing to sneeze about especially with respect to debt.

    • Don Quijones says:

      Hi Not So Sure,

      Thanks for the link. It includes some very good points. As i noted in a past article on the IMF (Lies, Damned Lies and Sadistics: The IMF’s Role as Banker Henchman), many countries of the global south like Brazil finally learnt the lessons of the past and paid off all their debt owing to the IMF. In fact, we now live in a world where the richest nations are also the biggest debtors and vice versa.

      Brazil is also less exposed to the international markets than, say, my country in law, Mexico, which is Latin America’s most liberalized economy. As such, it should be somewhat less vulnerable to external shocks.

      That said, its currency has suffered a veriginous descent and there are clearly risks in terms of private sector debt. Whatever S&P’s motivations might be for it’s latest downgrade (let’s face it, the rating agencies hardly have a squeaky clean record when it comes to f**king things up horribly or for that matter blatant conflicts of interest), it could not have come at a worse time for Brazil’s already troubled economy.

      All that said, the main thrust of my article is not Brazil’s macroeconomic situation but rather Santander’s huge exposure to a fast decelerating (and perhaps soon deleveraging) economy. For it (and many other Spanish corps) Latin America — and particularly Brazil — has been the goose that has laid the golden egg. But now that egg is broken and Santander will have to find somewhere else to chase all the high yields needed to cover all the misplaced bets it’s placed around the world (including, one assumes, in Latin America) — no easy task in a global economy that has stopped growing.

  4. unit472 says:

    Santander also has a big presence in the US used auto loan business which maybe a problem area too.

  5. d says:

    It always amuses me when corrupt crony entity’s like Santander, employ good staff, then fire them for being good at their jobs, and telling them what they don’t want to hear. As they continue poring their stock holders money into the bottom less pits of their crony’s entity’s.

    Which of course returns them, lots of personal grease.

  6. hoop says:

    Reserves 300.000.000.000 / 203.600.000 Popultaion = +/- 1473 USD per brazilian.

    What costs a iPhone or other electronica the new middle class deems itself necessary to have in Brazil. Also interest on USD debt needs to be paid from this reserves. Petrobras has 130 billion alone already in usd debt it seems. Also some debt might not be able to be rolled over and needs to be paid of in USD and renewed in BRL.

    By the way the both banks mentioned Santander and BBVA are also very active in Uruguay. See here lots of new apartments (empty) which billboards outside, stating that this was been able to be build by the good finance of one of these banks. Also you of course can buy it to life in it :-) or buy it as an investor :-) and get a loan from the same banks. This besides there relentless advertisements for cars with zero pct loans.

  7. Peter says:

    No So Sure,

    thank you for the link to the article, which shows that it is Brazil’s big businesses that have hard money debt problems (US$300) and not the Government of Brazil. I wish that the USA only had a debt to GDP ratio of 41%.

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