Jordi Gual has been chairman of CaixaBank, Spain’s third largest lender, since 2016. The economics professor has spent 12 years with the bank’s parent group, which has a large network of more than 6,000 branches, one of the largest in the country. He has also advised the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, on economic policy.
He spoke with Handelsblatt about why he thinks having a large branch network is as important as digitization, what Europe should do with its bad loans and how Germany is a stabilizing force for the euro zone’s banking system. German politicians, he believes, are rising to the challenge of playing a major role on the financial world stage as America withdraws. “Stability may be a bit boring, but it is far better than booms and busts,” he said.
Dr. Gual, everyone talks about digitalization these days, yet CaixaBank has the most expansive branch network in Spain. Why?
That’s a question that often comes up in conversations with investors. The perception is that because of increased digitization banks should be cutting down costs by reducing existing branch networks, but the answer is more nuanced than that.
So what do you tell them?
Our branch network allows us to be close to our clients. They are geographically dispersed, especially the older population who, by the way, are the ones with the highest levels of savings. At CaixaBank, we believe that banks need both: digital channels to reach out to the millennials, but also a strong network of branches to offer financial advice and higher value-added services. Digitalization is a great opportunity that works alongside our branch network.
You sound pretty optimistic. Many of your colleagues seem to focus on risks, not on the opportunities.
That mentality is the result of several years of hardship. But digitalization and fintechs are a risk and an opportunity at the same time. This is also true for interest rates, which are slowly increasing. For a bank like CaixaBank that collects deposits and provides loans, higher interest rates allow us to make better margins.