Business 28/03/2021

José Ignacio Goirigolzarri: "We want the merger because to be sustainable over time we have to be profitable"

6 min
José Ignacio Goirigolzarri: "We want the merger because to be sustainable over time we have to be profitable"
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"Person ties". This is how José Ignacio Goirigolzarri, president in pectore of CaixaBank, refers to ties that are not Bankia green. He longed to wear them, and is living strange days. Thursday, on his last day at Bankia, he wore two: the green one, to start the day at the entity he has presided over for nine years, and "the person one", to go to sign the last documents of the macro-merger by which he has become president of the largest bank in Spain. The confession took place on Friday on the 24th floor of Torre Kio, 611 kilometers from the operational headquarters of CaixaBank in Barcelona, in the first interview a president of the Catalan bank has offered to the ARA. This 67-year-old native of Bilbao is surprisingly charming when up close, and does not hide from the emotions he has recently lived: "I'll keep Thursday's tie, from the last day in Bankia".

In 2009, when you was relieved of your duties at BBVA, it seemed that you would never again chair a bank and ended up chairing two. What does your ego tell you?

— If they had told me then, I wouldn't have believed it. My joining Bankia seemed to me to be a personal obligation of service because of the situation the bank was going through. This is the completion of that project. It's a satisfaction and I take it with a desire to serve, I don't think it's about my ego.

How were your first contacts with the president of La Caixa, Isidre Fainé, to discuss the merger?

— This is someone I have known all my life. Actually, the official contacts were between the shareholders, between Mr. Fainé and the vice-president of the government.

Is the State's interest different from that of a private shareholder?

— I don't think so at the moment. I refer to the evidence. When we joined Bankia I set just one condition: to run Bankia professionally, without political interference. Now we are talking about CaixaBank, and the State's participation will be independent.

Was there ever a real possibility of an understanding between Bankia and Banco Sabadell?

— No. There are always comments, but I differentiate between two types of conversations: those of a friendship and those of a minimum of formalization. Those with Banco Sabadell were part of this first chapter and never went any further.

Speaking of friendships, it is known that you did not have a pleasant relationship with Francisco González. I wanted to ask you if he has congratulated you.

— [Silence] Officially I haven't been appointed yet; I'll answer you on Tuesday.

Which is CaixaBank's strong point?

— The network's capacity to distribute the insurance business, pension plans... It's extraordinary, it's a treasure. From a more personal point of view, I have always loved the relationship with the "La Caixa" Foundation and its social action. The third aspect is the feeling of belonging that people have at CaixaBank.

And a weakness?

— I dare not say it at the moment, it would seem - from the bottom of my heart - a frivolity: I've been president of CaixaBank for four hours.

You said in 2016 that banks would have problems if interest rates did not rise in 2019, and not only have they not risen, but we are in a second crisis. How can they be profitable in this framework?

— The merger decision may be a strategic decision to gain economies of scale, efficiency and muscle. We have a genuine aspiration to obtain reasonable levels of profitability, above the cost of capital. Interest rates will come later, but decisions have to be made independently of the environment.

Would you invest in banking now?

— Bank share prices have risen spectacularly in recent months. But banking is a cyclical sector: if the economy has problems, banking has problems.

How do you see the way out of the crisis?

— It is true that Europe and Spain are not the fastest in the world in terms of vaccination, and it will take more or less time, but this vaccination will happen and will have an immediate impact on the economy. I am hopeful, if we get to a reasonably fast pace we will have a very fast reaction in the second part of the year.

The Kio Tower, where Bankia's operational headquarters used to be, now sports the CaixaBank logo.

We have problems of employment, education, dual vocational training, knowledge transfer from university to business, etc., but governments move on and they are not solved. What is going on in Spain?

— A friend of mine used to say that there was no better diagnosed economy than the Spanish one. I am convinced that the key word here is education, and I'm not just talking about university education. We say that we have the most well-educated youth in history, but with great differences, very dual from the point of view of skills. There is much to be done in employment policies. These are profound reforms that require agreements, and the lack of transversal agreements is a problem.

In recent years there has been a growing perception in Catalonia that CaixaBank has been de-Catalanysed. Are you aware of this feeling?

— The reality of the business is that CaixaBank has increased its market share in Catalonia over the last three years. That said, I think it is very important to send a clear message: that CaixaBank's roots remain in Catalonia. It seems absolutely clear to me, and it is an issue that I believe has always been present at CaixaBank. All I want to do is maintain this tradition.

So, have you thought about bringing back the head office to Catalonia?

— No. CaixaBank had its head office in Valencia, Bankia has its head office in Valencia and CaixaBank will have its head office in Valencia. A change of headquarters is not on the table.

How can the political conflict between a large part of Catalonia and the rest of Spain be resolved?

— I have always thought that we executives have no special title to give an opinion on politics. Politics is a game that is shaped by votes that give a voice to politicians who have to reach a consensus. This applies to all areas, including Catalonia and the relationship with the rest of Spain. There is no doubt that we have a political class that creates a lot of tension, and we need to reduce it, as it neither creates jobs nor saves lives. The enemy, now, is no one else but the crisis, and fighting it requires agreements and dialogue. And even more so when a country has the opportunity to emerge from the crisis by transforming itself: it is an opportunity that you cannot miss. We talk a lot about the funds, but with the funds there are also the requirements of the European Union to carry out reforms. And reforms require transversal support.

Do you think that Spanish politics has a surplus of outbursts?

— What Spanish society needs is a reduction in tension and an effort by everyone to find the points that unite us, not from a romantic point of view, but from a practical one.

You have experienced the last two crises at first hand, in which the banks have played a very different role. Does public opinion perceive this difference?

— I think so. In this crisis, the banks behaved very differently because they could have. It has had capital and liquidity, and the European Central Bank and the authorities have acted very differently. We have been close to families and companies.

You have been close to bankers such as Blesa, Rato and Francisco González. I wanted to ask you what you thought when certain practices came to light.

— My relationship with Blesa and Rato has been very limited. When these things appear in the press, you have to see which way they turn, because sometimes things are half and half. I'm not referring to the Blesa or Rato cases in particular.

Do we have to resign ourselves to seeing that in the Ibex-35 it is normal to hire people like the ex-commissioner Villarejo?

— No, no, this is not normal! How can it be normal?

One of the jobs you have is to reduce the workforce, and there is talk of a very important cut of 8,000, 10,000 workers.

— We are being very careful with this. The first people who need to know the information are the workers' representatives. We have the great goal of reaching an agreement with the unions and that the voluntary part is as large as possible.

The National Commission of Markets and Competition has given the green light to the merger, pointing out that there were areas where there could be a problem. If the merger harms competition and jobs are lost, why do we want a merger?

— We already said on 8 September that we will not give up any of the sites that Competition is concerned about. As to why we want the merger, you have to look at it in perspective. To be sustainable over time, a project has to be profitable. And in the case of banking, if it is not sustainable over time, it is doing the economy a disservice.

You spoke earlier about the "La Caixa" Foundation, which is seen in Catalonia as an extraordinary work. To what extent is it known in Spain?

— I'm not surprised that it feels that way in Catalonia. And as for how it is felt in the rest of Spain, the Foundation is very present everywhere, the truth is that it has done an extraordinary thing.