Cajas de Ahorros

Cajas de Ahorros
   Not unlike the British building societies, although less exclusively tied to house mortgages in their function, the Spanish Cajas de Ahorros or savings banks date from the 1830s when Spanish liberals returned from exile in France and England. The first major Caja was the Caja de Ahorros y Previsión de Madrid (1838) which followed the model of the Caisse d'Epargne de Paris. Some 250 local and regional Cajas have existed over the years. The Cajas are represented by the Confederación Española de Cajas de Ahorro (CECA) which acts as a crucial link between the individual Cajas and the monetary authorities of the state. Although during the Second Republic (1931–9) and the first two decades of the Franco regime the Cajas were deliberately placed at a disadvantage in relation to the more influential commercial banks, this situation changed in the 1960s following the 1962 Ley de Ordenación del Crédito y la Banca (Banking and Credit Regulation Law), and the gradual liberalization of the restrictions under which they had to operate enabled them to become increasingly competitive and to capture a substantial share of the nation's private savings and institutional lending. Nevertheless under Franco the Cajas remained subject to highly restrictive controls, which among other things obliged them to invest a large amount of their assets in government bonds. It was only in 1977 that a new law finally placed them on an approximately equal footing with the commercial banks. By the 1990s, after a period of mergers and further legislative relaxation allowing them to open branches outside their own regions and reducing their obligatory cash coefficients, there were some fifty Cajas and their combined deposits exceeded those of the commercial banks. Although the Cajas are responsible for no more than half of mortgage finance in Spain, a strong presence in smaller towns and the wide range of services which they provide, including that of the crediting of state pensions, afford them a crucial role in the Spanish financial system. The Cajas do not have shareholders and are obliged by law to devote their profits to reserves and to cultural and welfare projects of benefit to the community. Some 25 percent of profits after tax are devoted to the latter. This to some extent makes up for the low rates of interest which they have traditionally paid to their depositors. The solvency ratio (ownership capital to total assets) of the Cajas, which stood at 12.87 percent in 1995, is in general well above the minimum of 8 percent required by European legislation.
   The main policy thrust of the Cajas in recent years has been to increase their share of clients" deposits (not least by increasing the branch network); to introduce new varieties of mortgage loans and finance for consumer durables; and to enhance customer facilities such as debit cards, cash dispensers and credit transfers. This has been accompanied by a much more efficient clearing system in which the CECA has played a key role. Although they still lag behind the private banks in the area of attracting investment in financial products as distinct from simple deposits, they have nevertheless been moving cautiously into this area as well. Their philosophy, governed by the social aims for which they were founded, is still geared to providing a service to the family and to the family firm, but there is a recognition that the traditional operation of acting as mere deposit takers and then lending a substantial part of these funds to the financial market must be replaced by a much more diversified set of activities. Despite their strongly regional roots, reinforced to a degree by the new style of devolved government in Spain, some of the larger Cajas are now looking for an international role. The two largest Cajas are La Caixa and Caja de Madrid which together account for over onethird of savings banks deposits in Spain.
   Further reading
   - Salmon, K. (1995) The Modern Spanish Economy, 2nd edn, London: Pinter (a very accessible account of all the main aspects of the Spanish economy).
   C. A. LONGHURST

Encyclopedia of contemporary Spanish culture. 2013.

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