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Spain's Bank Yenta On What Went Wrong

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A couple years ago, Spain hatched a plan to help its small, regional banks. The banks, called cajas, had made lots of bad loans during Spain's real estate bubble.

The plan: Merge the bad cajas with the good ones, in order to make the losses more manageable and bring down overhead.

The government brought in Angel Borges, a banking consultant from Madrid, as a sort of yenta — a matchmaker who was supposed to help the cajas get together.

The plan didn't turn out so well. The biggest bank to come out of those mergers was Bankia, which collapsed last month and was partly taken over by the government, prompting the latest round of trouble for Spain.

I recently spoke with Borges, who told me the story of Bankia.

It starts with Spain's second largest caja, Caja Madrid. Caja Madrid was in OK shape. Angel says he went out and found Caja Madrid some great partners — five small banks that needed a little help.

But all Caja Madrid seemed to care about, Borges says, was size. The leaders kept asking: "Will this merger make us the biggest caja?"

No Angel, would say, you'll be the second biggest, same as you are now.

Caja Madrid went ahead and merged with the five small savings banks, just as Angel suggested.

But then Caja Madrid absorbed one more bank — the third largest caja in Spain, which had a portfolio full of terrible real esate loans and was in awful financial shape.

But it made the newly formed bank the biggest caja in Spain. That caja was renamed Bankia.

"I wasn't asked whether I was in favor or not," Borges says.

Borges was not in favor. Bankia, he says, is too big.

"A failure of that bank is not a failure of a normal bank," he says. "You may end up putting the whole system at risk."

Which is exactly what has happened. The Spanish government had to rescue Bankia, and Europe had to lend Spain money for more bank bailouts.

Angel now says Spain never should have tried to marry good with bad. The bad banks should have been kept on their own and wound down. It would have been painful, but at least the good banks might have survived it.

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