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Spanish banks: Twelve months of turbulence

Big mergers at the end of the 1990s, followed by banking scandals, have led to widespread changes at the top of Spanish banks. Exposure to Argentina has caused further headaches. The big two, SCH and BBVA, which are adjusting to their new identities, will be hoping that the worst is over.

After a turbulent 12 months of senior management upheaval and reform in Spanish banking things seem to be calming down, at least domestically.

Over the past year, two chairmen and two CEOs have resigned from Spain's two largest banks, Santander Central Hispano (SCH) and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA). The reasons differ from bank to bank but both went through big mergers at the end of the 1990s and both are gradually discovering that being a major European banking group demands a great deal more transparency than the small, family-run Spanish banks were previously used to.

BBVA has been through the greatest upheaval, turning over 50% of its board in the past six months. This includes the unexpected departure of co-chairman Emilio Ybarra and CEO Pedro Luis Uriarte last December.

It now seems clear that the sudden departure of these two banking executives is linked to the existence of secret accounts held as far back as 1987 in offshore tax havens, which are thought to have been used to provide tax-free pensions for 22 BBV employees before the merger with Argentaria, and to fund political campaigns in Latin America. Ybarra has taken full responsibility for the undisclosed accounts and is currently being investigated.

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