Economy minister rejects accusation he forced Bankia head to resign

Chairman’s replacement backs De Guindos’ version of Rato’s departure

Economy Minister Luis de Guindos. / Bernardo Pérez (EL PAÍS)

Economy Minister Luis de Guindos on Monday sought to counter criticism lodged by the former governor of the Bank of Spain, Miguel Ángel Fernández Ordóñez, over events surrounding the creation of Bankia from the amalgam of seven savings banks, its listing and subsequent collapse and nationalization.

In testimony given by Fernández Ordóñez to a High Court judge investigating events at Bankia, the former governor accused the economy minister of interfering in plans the central bank was drawing up to recapitalize Bankia and that De Guindos' department had forced the removal of Bankia's chairman, Rodrigo Rato, a former economy minister and managing director of the IMF.

In an interview with commercial television station Antena 3, De Guindos insisted that Rato had left of his own accord and that it was he who suggested he be replaced by José Ignacio Goirigolzarri. "These were absolutely voluntary decisions," the minister said.

In his appearance before High Court Judge Fernando Andreu on Monday, Goirigolzarri backed De Guindos' version of Rato's departure. He said the former IMF chief had called him to offer him the chairmanship on May 7. He said he was surprised to be offered the chairmanship instead of the position of chief executive officer, which Rato had previously suggested to him, newswire Efe reported him as saying.

Goirigolzarri said Rato felt he had lost the confidence of the Economy Ministry

Goirigolzarri said Rato felt he had lost the confidence of the Economy Ministry and wanted to stand down for "personal" reasons.

Fernández Ordóñez, who said he feared Spain might have to leave the euro because of Bankia's collapse, blamed interference by the ministry in the Bank of Spain's plans to restore the lender to health as the detonator for a lack of investor confidence in the Spanish economy and a jump in its risk premium.

In a veiled accusation that the central bank had failed in its supervisory role under Fernández Ordóñez, De Guindos said the Bank of Spain had now corrected some of the errors of the past. "The FROB [Orderly Bank Restructuring Fund] has taken action against those managers it believes did not do things correctly," he said.

De Guindos said it was counterproductive to persist with criticism of his department for the problems at Bankia. "If you are continually looking back, you can turn into a pillar of salt," he said.

The minister acknowledged it had been an "error" to include some of the savings banks in the merger that gave rise to Bankia. The inclusion of Valencia-based Bancaja, which was heavily exposed to the floundering real estate problem, has been identified as exacerbating the problems faced by Bankia.

Goirigolzarri said his first impression on taking up his post was that each of the seven savings banks that formed Bankia were still looking out for their own interests. "In the first few days I was at Bankia, I asked for information on foreclosed assets and they brought me a transparency for each savings bank," he said. "I told them that that was the last time I wanted to see information structured in such a way."

De Guindos also said it was a mistake to list Bankia at that time. Bankia made its stock market debut in 2011 at a price of 3.75 euros a share and had to be bailed out less than a year later. Its shares closed Monday at only 0.2740 euros, entailing massive losses for some 350,000 retail investors.

Bankia initially reported a profit for 2011 but after it was nationalized its earnings were restated to show a huge loss. Part of the High Court's investigation is to determine whether there are grounds for pressing charges of falsifying accounts, price-fixing and misleading investors in the lead-up to Bankia's listing.

Spain eventually borrowed over 40 billion euros from its European partners to recapitalize Bankia and other banks in the sector. The state has injected some 22 billion euros into Bankia.

De Guindos on Monday ruled out merging Bankia with two other banks that have been nationalized: Catalunya Banc and NG Banco. He said the three banks are now healthy and solvent, with ample liquidity and would eventually be privatized. The FROB aborted a public tender for the sale of Catalunya Banc due to a lack of competitive bids.

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