Why You Should Let Banco Santander SA Look After Your Money


You know, I reckon there’s a question that every current executive had to answer during the interview process to join Banco Santander (LSE: BNC) (NYSE: SAN.US). The question would go something like this: “Did you enjoy playing with Lego during your childhood?”. That may sound silly, but even a brief look at the Santander empire and it’s not difficult to see the group’s love of the bolt-on acquisition. It’s lazy expansion, but it’s expansion all the same. It’s resulted in the bank being able to boast an impressive portfolio of businesses, and has given it the label as the eurozone’s largest bank.

In fact, it was Santander’s long-time chairman Emilio Botín that transformed Santander from a small, regional lender into the eurozone’s largest bank by market value. Sadly, he recently died of a heart attack at the age of 79. The board named his eldest daughter, Ana Patricia Botín, as his successor last week. That also extends the family’s ‘control’ over the bank to four generations.

Like any new leader trying to fill some very big shoes, she’s tried to reduce the amount of pressure that’s been immediately placed on her. She was quoted in the press as saying her father’s “success story” wouldn’t be easy to replicate. She added that: “The new competitive and regulatory environments are ever more demanding”.

Off to a bad start

That’s especially poignant given recent news that Santander’s US arm has been given a slap on the wrist by US regulators for issuing dividends. You see, the Federal Reserve had moved to restrict the group’s US unit from issuing dividends (without prior permission) after the bank failed the Fed’s annual stress tests on capital in January. It failed the test because its procedures for capital management were inadequate (not because it didn’t have enough capital). Mind you, Santander’s not the first to fail this test. The question is why? Especially when the bank’s made no secret about its desire to expand in the US.

I’m about to give the bank’s financial performance the quick once over, but just to be clear, I included the above news in my view today because it’s something to watch if you are an investor in Santander. No corporation is squeaky clean, but this is an obvious ‘oversight’ from the bank.

Attractive numbers

Late last year, Banco Santander’s UK arm rode the UK housing market revival, boosting its gross mortgage lending by 28% to £18.4 billion. Government programmes to revive the housing market and bank lending, more generally, have also seen wholesale funding costs come down. Recently (in Q2), Santander produced a profit margin of nearly 7% and a return on equity of nearly 8%. It’s a solid bank as it stands.

I rarely comment on charts, but it’s also noteworthy to see such a clear share price turnaround such as the one displayed by Banco Santander in 2012.

You could do a lot worse than choosing Banco Santander to look after your money. There are, however, more risks than usual with this one. The eurozone economic recovery is far from locked-in, the rise in the UK’s housing market is arguably unsustainable and unstable, and I suspect banking regulations will continue to be difficult for many banks — including Santander — to swallow. That said, current market conditions are supporting this Spanish bank right now.

I think Ms Botín summed it up nicely: “The UK economic recovery is strengthening, although uncertainties remain in the banking environment for the year ahead.” Banco Santander is a potentially profitable investment but, as always, caveat emptor!

It's strange, isn't it, analysing these once-mighty investment opportunities through a very cautious eye? That's just one of the many flow-on effects of the Great Recession. We Fools want to make life easier for you in this regard. Especially when it comes to choosing the right banks to invest in.

Our team of analysts have come up with this special free report looking at investing in banks. It's a guide to choosing a bank on the basis of sound financial analysis. If banks are something you are interested in (if you're looking for a little 'icing' on your investments), this is an important guide for you to read. Indeed, you'd normally have to attend some after-work seminar to get information packaged in this sort of way. Enjoy -- it's free!

David Taylor has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has no position in any of the shares mentioned. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.