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Cajas and shares

Spain's savings banks have decided to dip their toes in the uncharted waters of the market by issuing shares, a move that could eventually hasten the privatization of the 48 cajas de ahorros that account for half the country's financial system.

Caixa Galicia, one of the top five savings banks, has taken the first timid step by approving the issuance of up to Pta25 billion ($142 million) in non-voting shares that will be available to bank customers and employees.

There is growing domestic and foreign pressure for the cajas to open up to private capital.

The IMF and OECD have made recommendations in favour of privatizing the sector and even the powerful Spanish business confederation Círculo de Empresarios says it is wrong for "half of Spain's financial system to be lacking ownership and under the control of political parties".

The cajas have been ruthlessly exploiting their privileged mutual status which protects them from takeover by banks, but allows them to snap up their bank rivals, as was seen in the past couple of years with the acquisition of the Spanish operations of Abbey National and a local Deutsche Bank subsidiary.

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