La Caixa float to fund aggressive expansion

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The Independent Online

The Spanish savings bank La Caixa will use €4bn (£2.7bn) that it raises in one of Europe's biggest floats next month to fund an aggressive expansion abroad.

Its chief executive Juan Maria Nin said the offering on the Spanish stock exchange of a 20 per cent stake in its €25.2bn Criteria Caixa industrial portfolio – the largest in Spain – will give it the capital and the profile necessary to export its brand of "active portfolio management" to groups abroad for the first time. Until now, the bank has operated almost entirely within Spain, where Santander, the owner of Abbey National, and BBVA are the major players.

Criteria Caixa will focus primarily on taking large stakes in financial institutions, and to a lesser extent industrial groups in central and eastern Europe, America and Asia. The float will also lay the groundwork for the group's plan to expand its retail banking operations outside its home market.

The group has two board seats on Telefonica and put up much of the financing for its takeover of the UK mobile group O2. It also controls Abertis, the infrastructure giant that owns Cardiff, Luton and Belfast airports; Aguas de Barcelona, owner of Bristol Water; and the energy group Gas Natural.

Criteria Caixa intends on taking a similar approach to its investments abroad. Mr Nin said it may make full acquisitions to increase its footprint. "If we see opportunities at the right price, yes we would [make outright acquisitions]," he said.

La Caixa is still governed in many respects according to the founding bylaws of Spain's "cajas de ahorros" – regional savings banks where some executives are still appointed by local politicians. All also have social missions: cajas have to invest 25 per cent of their profits in "social dividends" to finance cultural and social projects. La Caixa's foundation is one of the largest in the world.

Some cajas still have close ties to the Catholic church, political parties and labour leaders. La Caixa is governed by three committees: a 160-member general assembly; a 21-person board of directors; and a nine-member control committee. Ten of its 21 directors come from regional governments, local cultural associations, and other domestic interest groups.

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