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Monday, September 17, 2007

Banco Santander in Brazil

This is an interesting piece from Bloomberg this morning:

Botin Builds `Republic of Santander' in Lula's Brazil

Brazil's trade minister is a former executive at Banco Santander SA. So is the man who oversees the country's monetary policy. Spain's biggest bank spent 1.8 million reais ($948,000) to back President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's campaign in 2002.

Now Santander is bidding for ABN Amro Holding NV's Brazilian unit to double its size in Latin America's largest economy. The deal would make Santander the biggest non-state bank in Brazil, ahead of Banco Itau Holding Financeira SA.

``Brazil is fast becoming the Republic of Santander,'' said Paulo Pereira da Silva, a federal deputy and head of Forca Sindical, the country's second-biggest union grouping. ``The bank's influence is growing.''

Santander Chairman Emilio Botin built ties to Lula as other lenders pulled back on concern the former labor leader would default on Brazil's debt, said Mauro Guillen, who wrote a history of the bank. Five years later, Citigroup Inc. and HSBC Holdings Plc are vying for a bigger slice of the Brazilian market as declining interest rates increase demand for loans.

``If they succeed in buying ABN Amro, Santander will become a Brazilian powerhouse,'' said Guillen, a professor at the Wharton School in Philadelphia. ``It's a quantum leap.''

Santander, based in the northern Spanish town of the same name, is part of a group led by Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc that has offered 72 billion euros ($100 billion) for Amsterdam- based ABN Amro. The Spanish bank would get ABN Amro's Brazilian unit, Banco Real and Italian lender Banca Antonveneta SpA. A Santander spokesman declined to comment on ties to Lula.

Banespa Purchase

Botin appeared with Lula at a ceremony today in Madrid, where he said he expected Brazil to receive an investment-grade credit rating within 18 months.

``You know that we believe in Brazil,'' Botin told Lula, reminding him how they first met in his campaign office before the 2002 elections.

Santander, which entered Brazil in 1982, made its biggest push in 2000, when it bought Banco do Estado de Sao Paulo SA, known as Banespa, for $4.8 billion. Botin paid more than three times the price offered by the next-highest bidder, Uniao de Bancos Brasileiros SA, or Unibanco.

The rising value of Brazilian banks shows Santander's investment was sound, said Francisco Luzon, the bank's Latin America chief. Shares of Unibanco, Brazil's sixth-biggest bank by assets and the closest in size to Banespa, have risen fourfold since 2000, giving it a market value of 50.7 billion reais.

Yet Banespa's profitability and efficiency lag behind those of Brazil's biggest non-state banks, said Luis Miguel Santacreu, an analyst at Austin Rating in Sao Paulo.

Still Struggling

Banespa's return on equity was 15.5 percent last year, compared with 20.5 percent at Banco Bradesco SA and 18.3 percent at Itau. It also has the worst customer-complaint ranking among Brazil's biggest banks, according to the central bank.

``Buying Banespa was like a snake devouring a cow -- it takes a long time to digest,'' Santacreu said.

The payoff will be worth it, says Andrea Williams, who helps manage $2.4 billion in European banking stocks, including Santander, at Royal London Asset Management.

Brazil's mortgage market may grow more than fivefold in the next seven years, reaching 10 percent of gross domestic product from 2 percent now, according to Luiz Antonio Franca, mortgage director at Itau. Brazil contributed 455 million euros to Santander's first-half earnings, or 10 percent of group profit.

Santander backed Lula before the October 2002 elections, giving 1.8 million reais to Lula's party, according to Brazil's electoral court. It also donated 1.4 million reais to Jose Serra of the Social Democracy Party. By comparison, Itau donated 3.12 million reais to Serra's party and 350,000 reais to Lula's Workers' Party.

`Critical Time'

In August of that year, Botin restricted access to Santander's research after a New York analyst recommended selling Brazilian assets as the country's bonds and currency plummeted on concern Lula would default on 1.05 trillion reais of public debt.

After Lula's victory, Botin paid a call on the new president and pledged to maintain $2 billion in trade lines at a time when international lending to Brazil had plunged 16 percent.

``Santander believed in Lula and Brazil at a critical time,'' said Alexandre Marinis, who runs Mosaico Economia Politica, a consulting firm in Sao Paulo.

In March, Miguel Jorge, Banespa's corporate affairs director, was named trade minister. Mario Gomes Toros, a former vice president for Santander in Brazil, was appointed monetary policy chief at the central bank a month later.

A spokesman for Lula didn't return calls seeking comment. Jorge declined to be interviewed, a spokesman for the Trade Ministry said. Toros's representative declined to comment.

Jorge and Botin

At Banespa, Jorge helped leaders of United Workers' Central, Brazil's biggest union grouping, devise a plan for deducting loan payments from payroll checks, slashing costs for union members, said Jose Paulo Nogueira, executive director of the ABC Metalworkers' Union.

In previous corporate posts at Volkswagen AG's factory in Sao Bernardo and Autolatina, a venture of VW and Ford Motor Co., Jorge mixed with union leaders allied to Lula, including Luiz Marinho, who is now social security minister, Nogueira said.

Botin and Jorge hugged at today's meeting between Lula and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

``Is Jorge someone Lula trusts? Well, he made him a minister,'' Nogueira said. ``They've been very astute.''

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