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Spanish savers fall victim to friendly bankers

Monday - 12/17/2012, 12:30am  ET

In this photo taken Oct 23, 2012, a disabled man passes a Bancaixa regional savings bank that is now part of Spanish banking giant Bankia in La Vall D'Uixo, near Valencia, Spain. Thousands of townspeople and nearly a million across Spain followed bank manager's advice and invested their life savings in the bank's stocks. Lured by the family-like ties nurtured between bankers and customers, they poured their life's savings into higher-yielding financial instruments recommended by the people managing their money. When boom turned to catastrophic bust, they found the stock they had acquired had become all but worthless. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)

JORGE SAINZ
Associated Press

LA VALL D'UIXO, Spain (AP) -- When Felix Valls followed his bank manager's advice and invested his entire savings in the bank's stocks, he did it without thinking.

It was a simple question of loyalty.

After all, how could he doubt the local bank that opened an account for him just after he was born in 1935 with a gift of 5 pesetas, a small fortune in those days, as a sign of respect to his parents, who were life-long customers? Now the 77-year-old Valls feels betrayed as he finds himself locked out of his hard-earned money.

"I don't understand what's going on," he said. "The only thing I want is for them to return what is mine."

His plight is shared by thousands of his fellow townspeople and nearly a million across Spain: Lured by the family-like ties nurtured between bankers and customers, they poured their life's savings into higher-yielding financial instruments recommended by the people managing their money. When boom turned to catastrophic bust, they found the stock they had acquired had become all but worthless.

Once-lifelong friendships have turned to enmity, as victims cry treachery. In some towns, angry customers have burst into bank branches with shotguns and yelled death threats. Despair has set in as many of the victims are elderly people who were depending on the money to fund their last years.

In towns like La Vall D'Uixo, bank employees and customers would often have close relationships, sometimes going out to have coffee and other times finding themselves sitting together at school plays.

But those times are over.

Jose Romero has spent nearly four decades working at Bancaja, a regional savings bank that is now part of Spanish banking giant Bankia. He said relationships with clients have recently become very tense and sometimes have hovered on the verge of violence.

"The client trusts the brand, but the employee even more," Romero said. "But when you touch their money, people change radically. We've seen death threats, insults, people who come in with shotguns."

Romero heads a Bancaja union and he has seen an increase in the number of complaints from employees who feel they can't go out on the street because they are scared.

Spain's Confederation of Savings Banks declined to comment on gun incidents at bank branches and said all investors in the bank stock had to authorize purchases by signing contracts containing "brief and non-technical language" about the risks they were agreeing to take on. The confederation added in a statement that investments in "preferred stock" were sound when introduced but their value was hurt by market conditions and Spain's deteriorating economy.

Preferred stock entitles the holder to a fixed-rate dividend, paid before any payouts are distributed to holders of ordinary shares- common stock. Holders of such preferred stock also rank higher than ordinary shareholders in receiving proceeds from the liquidation of assets if a company goes into court protection.

Romero, like most of his colleagues, sold preferred stock in his bank and believed at the time that he was promoting a good product. They were first offered at the end of the 1990s at a time of economic boom and many people benefited from the returns. The problems started when people started signing up between 2007 and 2009, just as the bubble was bursting.

"There was a market that worked at the time and had good returns," he said. "But the crisis came suddenly and it all collapsed."

The country's financial crisis has already yielded many dark milestones, including 25 percent unemployment and home foreclosures on an unprecedented scale. Add to that the scandal of up to 1 million Spaniards whose money is frozen or have been lost after banks allegedly mis-sold them complicated financial products.

The crisis has hit especially hard in La Vall D'Uixo, about an hour's drive north of the eastern city of Valencia.

Some of the town's residents have been denied access to investments that represent their life savings, while others have simply found their nest egg has become worthless because of the collapse of share prices. Up to 1,500 families in the town of 34,000 have been affected. They say they are victims of banks that sold them products that promised generous dividends, but have delivered financial ruin at the height of the crisis.

Vincente Porcar is fighting for EUR70,000 (about $90,000) that his 78-year-old mother, Francisca Molina, inherited when her husband died. Molina said that rather than offering something ultra-safe like a savings account or a certificate of deposit scheme, their local bank offered them preferred stock in the bank and made it seem like they had a fixed rate with no risk attached.

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