Spain SA braces for change in political guard

November 28, 2011

By Fiona Maharg-Bravo
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

The arrival of a new boss is always unsettling. What role Spain’s new government will play in the corporate world is still unclear after the landslide victory of Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party last Sunday. Unlike the outgoing socialists, the conservative party was notorious for its heavy interventionism in the 1990s. But Spain has come a long way since then. And Rajoy should be too busy stabilising the economy to rock the boat in Spain’s boardrooms.

During the conservative premiership of Jose Maria Aznar, who came to power in 1996, it was said that nothing major happened in Spain’s top companies without the government having a say about it. All the same, major privatisations were launched, paving the way for the country’s entry into the euro. When their turn came to govern in 2004, the socialists kept a lower profile, and most captains of industry hung on to their jobs after Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero became prime minister – save for a botched attempt to remove the BBVA chairman, and a change at Repsol.

The new government won’t be a repeat of the 1990s. Granted, much will depend on the personalities of the economy and industry ministers, yet to be made public. But Rajoy is seen as more independent-minded and cautious than his predecessor. And he will have bigger fish to fry than placing buddies in top corporate echelons. Moreover, Spain’s biggest companies are now firmly in the hands of the private sector – thanks to the privatisations of the 1990s.

It would be naïve to assume that a change in the guard won’t cause any ripples in Spain’s boardrooms. The most vulnerable are those with large core shareholders interested in close government ties. There will inevitably be strong state oversight in the energy sector, which needs a cost-reducing overhaul.

But the banking sector will be the top priority. Rajoy has already called for more restructuring, which will necessarily involve more state capital. Together with the Bank of Spain, the government will have to knock heads together. But they will have to play by the book. Investors can at least take comfort in the fact that the glare of the markets will be squarely on the new team.

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