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Spanish banking: Unicaja swims against the stream

As Spain prepares to digest the €17 billion merger of CaixaBank and Bankia, Andalucían lender Unicaja has revived merger talks with rival Liberbank as it faces a threat to its regional dominance. While its community roots are an advantage, it also needs an answer to the calls for change

Malaga skyline

(This story was updated on October 8 to reflect reports that Unicaja is in informal merger talks with Liberbank.)

In the heart of the southern Spanish port of Malaga, one building soars unavoidably above the bustling cityscape: the headquarters of Banco Unicaja.

Built in a severe brutalist style that seems at odds with Malaga’s summery vibe, local commerce revolves around the Unicaja tower, extending across rural Andalucía beyond. Unicaja is the sum of a 1991 merger of a regional group of centuries-old savings thrifts and credit unions, or cajas, and is today a banking powerhouse in the region. No other Spanish bank comes near it here in terms of local spread, retail business and brand recognition.

Indeed, in many of Andalucía’s characteristic pueblos blancos, the area’s famous white villages, Unicaja is the only game in town. To many locals, Unicaja is simply ‘El banco.’