MARCH '13 UPDATE: I wrote this assessment in August 2012 and there have been some developments since. On the plus side, the Eurozone crisis seemed to ease after the European Central Bank said it would do everything it took to backstop the weaker countries like Spain. This has made Spanish banks look safer.
On the negative side now we have Cyprus where a Euro-area country has begun confiscating a % of people's deposits without warning and preventing them accessing their accounts. Could that happen in Spain? See Could Spain "do a Cyprus" and raid Spanish bank accounts? for the very latest.
The Telegraph recently ran an article entitled "Pain in Spain could spell trouble for expats" asking whether money deposited in Spanish banks was safe.
It's a good question if you live in Spain and have a current account with a local bank and also some or all of your savings in a deposit account. Perhaps you bank with one of the big banks like Santander or BBVA or one of the cajas which are like building societies (but with less money!).
The article was prompted by a wave of downgrades of Spanish banks by S&P which followed a downgrade of the whole country to BBB+ status the previous week.
Even national giants Santander and BBVA were on the list of threatened banks although they still get a rating higher than the national one.
The article focused on the government deposit guarantee scheme which ensures you get €100,000 back from the government if your bank goes bust. It suggested that you might want to review if you have assets more than this. However that only partly answers the question in my view. How good is the goverment guarantee?
Given that the Spanish government is also deep in a debt mire along with the country's financial institutions, it is unclear whether they have the financial strength to bail out the banks and honour these guarantees.
Spanish national debt is not actually that high as a % of GDP but there are all sorts of hidden liabilities and big doubts over whether government cuts and tax rises will bring it under control or simply make the economy even weaker. The Spanish have been struggling to sell their bonds at reasonable rates of interest rates and indeed it is only the local banks that have been buyers recently.
Spanish banks have been stepping in to buy their government's bonds using dirt cheap ECB loans they got in exchange for dodgy property assets. Just who is propping who up?
There are no guarantees in Spain that inspire confidence - the banks have insufficient capital when compared to the optimistic values they contine to attach to their assets and the government cannot afford to pay its own bills nevermind bail out the banks. Best therefore to stay clear.
There are plenty of alternative homes for Euro deposits but remember if you live in Spain but park your money offshore then you still have to pay tax on the interest. It is definitely not a good idea to try and hide interest income because the Spanish tax office has information on all accounts including places like the Channel Islands and Gibraltar. Given the pressure on them to bring in extra revenues, offshore accounts of Spanish residents are just the sort of place they will look.
This brings me onto another reason why I would be wary of holding much more than "walking around money" in a Spanish bank account: the authorities are getting desperate and are not afraid to confiscate money from people they suspect of avoiding tax using bank account "embargoes". Even if you successfully appeal against the tax office when they wrongly make a grab for your money would you want the expense and hassle of fighting to get it back?
Finally there is what you might call the "Argentina factor" - the outside chance that things get really nasty with Spain's economy worsening further, leaving (or being ejected) from the Euro and deafulting on the national debt. It dosen't take the world's greatest pessimist or cynic to envisage the government in these circumstances reneging on the bank deposit guarantee or repaying euro balances in new pesetas worth a fraction of the account's Euro value.
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