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Opinion

Itaú: Scale and scalability

Milton Maluhy officially became Itaú’s new CEO at the beginning of February. He now faces the challenge of cutting the bank down to size.

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Maluhy’s first results conference call was more interesting for what he said about the future than the past.

What Maluhy faces will be radically different from any other of the bank’s illustrious list of CEOs.

Whereas his predecessors were all focused on growing the bank organically and – under Roberto Setubal particularly – through acquisitions and mergers, Maluhy will have to take an axe to the bank’s network of branches.

In the past, put bluntly, scale won in Brazil. Itaú grew so large that it became known as Banco-Padaria – the bakery bank, so-called as there was a branch on every corner.

This resulted in domination of the industry – the bank has long had returns on equity above 20%.

Shifting the weight of its competitive advantage from the scale to the funding part of the equation would give Itaú a renewed edge in the market

HSBC and Citi gave up on Brazil after they concluded that they wouldn’t be able to match the scale of big lenders such as Itaú. And those retreats were recent, too: 2015 for HSBC and 2016 for Citi.

There were rumours that Santander Brasil might have to follow suit, but the digital-transformation age came to that bank’s rescue – ably capitalized on by its CEO Sergio Rial, who has transformed the bank into one that can match Itaú and Bradesco in the metrics that really matter.

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