James Moore: Santander looks like it's catching a very nasty cold from the Spanish flu


Outlook Have the wheels fallen off Banco Santander? This is the bank, remember, that incredibly brushed off the credit crunch as if it were an elephant having a minor problem with an irritating mosquito.

The bank actually emerged from the disaster of the three-pronged takeover and break-up of a Dutch disaster zone (ABN Amro) looking better than it did when it went in, thanks to skilfully allowing the hubris-fuelled Sir Fred Goodwin to do all the hard work while it waltzed off with all the good bits. Some of which were later (part) sold at a healthy profit.

Incredibly this is a bank that even had the rambunctious members of the last Treasury Select Committee purring like well-fed moggies. That was accomplished by playing the ever so 'umble Uriah Heep card, showing a bit of humility (yes, you British banks, it is possible) and preaching the MPs' "narrow banking is the way forward" mantra back to them.

In short, while its rivals were filling their boots with taxpayer-funded bonuses, and cocking snooks at their rescuers, the boys from Banco looked good. A bit too good, if truth be told, and if it looks too good to be true in banking, well...

Was yesterday's profit warning the first sign of reality biting, then? For a long time there has been a small but determined band of Santander sceptics in the City, people who doubt its apparent ability to walk on water.

Take Joseph Dickerson of Execution Noble, for example. He took issue with the Bank of Spain's assertion that Santander and BBVA were "the strongest [banks] in Europe", suggesting they needed £9bn back in June. He highlighted the small matter of sharply rising unemployment, deflationary pressures and a property bust. That's one example, but there have been others. These people looked at Santander's supernova-like numbers and wondered how the bank appeared able to defy gravity. After all, even the mighty HSBC hasn't escaped the events of the last few years unscathed.

There have been some ugly, ugly things happening in Banco's home market. Santander might be a global bank, but surely it can't entirely escape the crisis in its back yard. Can it?

Well, no. Yesterday the bank called a halt to acquisitions, provisionally scheduled a partial float of its UK arm for next year, and admitted that 2010 profits would not meet its forecasts.

The latter was not least because Santander had to take a rather bigger-than-expected charge for bad Spanish assets under the Bank of Spain's accounting rules. The Banco boys caught short by the Spanish practices of the regulator? Surely not.

What is clear about Santander now is that the takeover spree that turned it into a global bank is well and truly over. If there are deals to be done over the next couple of years they are likely to be disposals, or partial disposals like the flotation of the UK arm next year. The MPs on that committee might like to think carefully in future about putting too much credence in the honeyed words of bankers who set out to tell you want you want to hear.

Is the profit warning a bump in the road, or something more serious? Hard to say right now. But the old market mantra is that one such warning is usually followed, sooner or later, by another. And then another. Trouble comes in threes. Don't fear though, Santander's a really, really big bank. Too big in fact to... but we won't go there.

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