The structures of most companies seem entirely natural to long-serving bosses. But the further the business diverges from a standard model — in banking, the single-country retail lender — the more time the executive spends justifying it. This has been the task of Ana Patricia Botín since 2014, when she succeeded her father at the top of Banco Santander. The pandemic year of 2020 has helped her more than an €8.8bn annual loss might suggest. It is an advantage she should not squander.
Santander is a diversified business, active mainly in retail lending in ten markets — including the UK — on three continents. Investors do not like diversification. They suspect it cloaks inefficiency and committed thinking. But it did its job for Santander in 2020. Thanks to the buoyant performance of Latin American banks, notably in Brazil, group profits before write-offs and restructuring charges rose slightly to about €5bn.
Any skilful finance director can adjust out the factors behind a record spillage of red ink. Market prices less flatteringly rank Santander in the middle of the pack of Europe-based banks, who are engaged in the valuation equivalent of a contest to be the least bad. Santander trades at 0.5 times tangible book compared with Lloyds at 0.6, BNP Paribas at 0.5 times and Barclays at 0.4 times, according to Bloomberg. However, the bank, routinely accused of lacking capital, now has more than it expected.
Ms Botín’s latest plan to inflame the spirit of collective purpose among colleagues and investors is One Santander. If successful, Santander would look a little more like a franchising operation and a little less of a federation. Competitive pushes, for example in technology or mortgages, will be commissioned by the hub and shared among the spokes. In parallel, Santander is pulling together its payments businesses. It may float a minority stake.
Steely purpose will be needed for these initiatives to succeed where others failed. Focus fans may throw up their hands at Santander spawning another subsidiary, even in highly rated payments. If so, they could always invest directly in Santander’s fast-growing, listed subsidiaries in Brazil, Mexico and Chile.
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