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Spanish bank to float investment unit

SPAIN - Barcelona-based savings bank La Caixa is to float 20% of its investment arm, Criteria Caixa Corp, in October.

La Caixa is currently Spain’s third-largest financial institution after Santander and BBVA and the Criteria IPO will be made on the four Spanish stock exchanges: Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao and Valencia.

Some 83% of Criteria’s existing portfolio is in service sector, largely utilities, companies and 17% in financial sector companies, both quoted and unquoted, Criteria chief executive Francisco Reynes told a press conference in Barcelona today.

Criteria’s portfolio was valued at €25.25bn to the end of August, Reynes stated.

Among its investments, the portfolio includes a 35.5% stake in gasNatural, which at end-June had a market value of E6.3bn, as well as12.5% of Repsol valued at E4bn, and 5.5% of Telefonica valued at E4.5bn.

The offering also holds 100% of local life and non-life insurer CaiFor, 67% of insurance broker GDS, 100% of mutual fund management, consumer finance, leasing and securitisation subsidiaries as well as a 25% holding in Portuguese bank BPI, and 20.5% in a French online distributor of savings products.

The placement will be in two tranches, for retail and wholesale investors, Criteria chairman Ricardo Fornesa said.

Perhaps more importantly, Criteria will used as the vehicle for La Caixa’s strategy of expanding abroad, the bank’s president and CEO Juan Maria Nin said.

“Under our 2007-2010 plan, we will begin our international growth, focusing on east and central Europe, notably Poland and Greece and counties closer to home,” he said. The reference to closer to home was seen as meaning Portugal while Nin also said the group is eyeing expansion in the US and Asia.

He added the intention is to rebalance Criteria’s portfolio to increase the weighting of financial holdings to 60:40 or 50:50.

“We have the opportunity to develop retail banking in other countries” he said.

“We have the capital, experience and IT support available. If we see opportunities with the right price and profitability we will do it,” added Nin.

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