The Spanish banking giant is snapping up other lenders and growing its corporate bond business in Poland - but can the Qataris be far behind?
Polish set to help Santander shine
If there is a nasty leak to repair, turn to the Poles. So the received wisdom has run since the European Union's largest expansion brought in Poland - and those supposedly inexpensive plumbers - in 2004.
Banco Santander, Europe's biggest bank in terms of market value, appears to have taken the lesson on board. It is casting its gaze eastwards in the hope of plugging an alarming leak of its own.
A 94 per cent slump in earnings in the third quarter of this year has shaken the Spanish banking group into broadening its outlook. After concentrating largely on markets in western Europe, the United States and Latin America, it is intensifying its activities in the former Warsaw Pact country.
Santander blamed the steep fall - net profits nearly halved to €100 million (Dh470.1m) on write-downs in its beleaguered base country, Spain, and poorer returns from its activities in the United Kingdom and Brazil.
It expects better times ahead in its Polish operations. The group this year added the purchase of Kredyt Bank to its 2010 acquisition of Bank Zachodni and its plans to merge the two could gain approval from the Polish regulators by the end of this month.
A key element of Santander's strategy for Poland is the development of its corporate bond business. Some analysts feel this could prove an astute move. Fitch Ratings expects the market to triple in the coming years.
The bank's first euro-bond mandate in Poland was secured recently when it was hired by the Tauron Polska Energia power company. Bloomberg estimates Santander has already trebled its Polish underwriting portfolio in the space of a year through its involvement in four of Poland's six biggest corporate bond programmes.
Bloomberg cited JPMorgan Chase indexes as showing Polish company bonds yielding 14 per cent in the past six months, well ahead of the average of 8.1 per cent for emerging Europe as a whole.
Corporate bond sales in Poland currently represent a tiny fraction of total bank loans, a far smaller proportion than in western Europe or the US.
Mateusz Morawiecki, the chief executive of Bank Zachodni, is confident there is scope for growth. "This market is an important part of our strategy for the future," he says. "We want to be part of a pie that's growing."
Poland's attraction to the Spanish bank is clear enough. Santander is a global player, Martin Kutny, a bond analyst at Raiffeisen Bank International in Vienna, told Bloomberg News. Accordingly, he says, it aims to "become a top-three player in every market it enters".
The bank's purchases are tipped to propel Santander to third place among Poland's lenders.
And even with signs of worsening economic conditions for the country appearing on the horizon, there is evidence its financial sector holds significant appeal for outsiders searching for new markets.
Could suitors include the Qataris, so energetic in recent years in buying up assets in other parts of Europe, notably the UK, France and Germany?
The head of Poland's central bank may soon discover whether a message conveyed in an interview with the Qatar Tribune last year has duly reached those directing the fabulously financed sovereign wealth fund.
Marek Belka, the governor of the National Bank of Poland, said then he welcomed the prospect of investment by the gas-rich Arabian Gulf state in banking as well as energy, property and tourism.
"Poland's electricity network is dated and in need of investment for modernisation," he said. "I think Qatar, with its financial muscle, can make use of this investment opportunity."
Mr Belka, formerly a senior player at the IMF, also cited Saudi Arabia among GCC countries that could be interested in investing much-needed capital into the power industry, and "gradually open the window for investment in other sectors of the Polish economy as well".
He suggested the Qatar Investment Authority could consider exploiting Poland's "strong and untapped tourism potential", including hotels and hospitality.
Qatar has been busy in other parts of Europe but it may be that even after the moves by Santander, Poland's financial sector banking remains one in which it could be interested.
Mr Belka has considerable respect for Islamic banking. He describes certain of its guiding principles as "very attractive" and believes if these had been observed by banks around the world, "we would have never had any financial crisis".
The Polish economy grew 4.3 per cent last year and has so far avoided the recessions crippling other European economies. But protecting itself from the debt crisis has become a tougher task and there have been recent signs of more testing times ahead, with growth slowing and manufacturing suffering a downturn for the first time in three years.
Santander, and any watching Qatari investment managers, will be keeping an anxious eye on progress. National Bank of Poland last week cut interest rates from 4.7 to 4.5 per cent in recognition of the slowing growth and said a further reduction could follow.
And Mr Belka will soon get his chance to check on how Doha views his opinion that Poland is ripe for Qatari investment. He is one of the principal guests at next month's Global Finance Re-Designed conference held under the patronage of Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani, the prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar, and hosted by the Qatar Central Bank.