Banco de Sabadell SA, one of Catalonia's biggest banks, said on Thursday that it would move its headquarters out of the restive Spanish region, as bankers said another major Catalan lender, CaixaBank SA, also was considering a relocation.
The strategies underscore how the separatist drive is roiling Spain beyond politics and into the realm of business and economy. Sabadell said its board decided to move its legal base to Alicante, Spain.
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Surges of separatist sentiment in other countries have long spooked banks and pushed them to either relocate or consider it. In Catalonia, such moves could prove cosmetic in the end, with the legal headquarters leaving the region but staff and executives largely staying, analysts say.
Instead, the moves were likely a form of cheap legal insurance to protect banks against lawsuits if shareholders and clients lost money because of the region's secessionist drive, some of these people said.
In a regulatory filing Thursday, Banco Sabadell said it "has adopted this decision in order to protect the interests of our customers, shareholders and employees." The move won't entail the transfer of any employees, it said.
Bankers and investors said CaixaBank also could shift its legal headquarters away from Barcelona to another part of Spain. In a statement, a CaixaBank spokesman said the bank "reiterates that the necessary decisions will be made, in a timely manner."
Shares in the two banks rose sharply on Thursday after plummeting this week after Catalonia's local government staged an independence referendum on Sunday, defying courts and the Spanish government, which declared it illegal. That stoked fears that local banks may suddenly find themselves outside the eurozone and cut off from European Central Bank's emergency liquidity facilities.
Analysts said while an independent Catalonia could retain the euro as its currency, its lenders would likely need to go through other eurozone banks to tap ECB funding. If Catalan banks run into trouble they also wouldn't have a powerful central bank to help them out. Catalan banks seek to remain protected by the Spanish government's deposit guarantee fund.
Earlier this week ratings firm Standard & Poor's said it was considering downgrading Catalonia's debt.
The Catalan crisis "could lead to a premature end for the cyclical upswing in the euro area which would weigh heavily on already overvalued European equities," Tim Davis and Andrew Harris, economists at Fathom Consulting, told clients in a research note Thursday. "Sectorally, Spanish banks may be the most adversely affected."
There is precedent for the Catalan banks.
Ahead of Scotland's 2014 independence vote, Lloyds Banking Group PLC and Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC said they would shift their legal headquarters to England if the country split from Britain. RBS and Lloyds executives feared a massive withdrawal of deposits by panicked customers in Scotland if the country became independent. As Scottish banking assets would be 12 times the size of Scotland's gross domestic product, investors worried Scotland wouldn't have the financial muscle to stand behind the banks in times of stress.
In the end, both banks stayed put when Scotland voted against independence. (The issue isn't completely off the table, as the Scottish National Party tries to stage another vote following the Brexit referendum.)
Canada's financial service industry, including insurance giant Sun Life, began migrating from Montreal to Toronto as secessionist sentiment boiled up in the French-speaking province of Quebec in the 1970s.
The U.K.'s Brexit referendum -- an independence vote of sorts -- hasn't had the same dramatic effect. Banks who deal with European clients from their London offices may have to create subsidiaries in the EU to service their needs instead. But the U.K.'s economy has enough heft to be seen as a stable place to house a large financial industry, whether the country is in the EU or not.
Since the Catalan government started its push toward independence, Catalan banks have tried to assuage investors' fears while not angering local clients. CaixaBank has 22% of its business in Catalonia and Banco de Sabadell has 26% there, the banks' figures show.
Moving headquarters is unlikely to have a profound effect on how the banks do business. Last month, Sabadell's chief executive, Jaume Guardiola, said the decision would likely entail "a change in domicile" with no people being moved -- the biggest impact being that more board meetings would need to be held in the new headquarters. The bank was considering the Spanish cities of Oviedo and Madrid, a bank official said, before deciding on Alicante, where it has a significant corporate presence following its 2011 purchase of bank based in the area.
In Spain, many banks were built up in peripheral, industrialized regions before moving their headquarters to Madrid. Spain's two largest banks, Banco Santander and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA, known as BBVA, are based in Santander and Bilbao respectively, but have their legal headquarters in Madrid.
Catalan officials argue an independent Catalonia would soon attract any departing bank back because they would "guarantee the continuity of European financial regulation."
"There won't be a shortage of banks in an independent Catalonia, just like there isn't in European countries of similar size, like Denmark, Austria, Finland or Switzerland," said Natalia Mas, the Catalan government's chief of economic and financial analysis.
But some pro-independence activists are taking a tougher line. On Friday, the left-wing party Candidatura d'Unitat Popular, which has 10 lawmakers in the Catalan parliament, suggested the regional government should stop dealing with CaixaBank, Sabadell and BBVA, the three lenders with the biggest presence in Catalonia.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 05, 2017 15:37 ET (19:37 GMT)