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article imageCatalan economy rattled by independence push

By Diego URDANETA (AFP)     Oct 9, 2017 in Business

The political uncertainty caused by Catalonia's independence push is hitting small businesses and people's savings accounts after pushing several big firms and banks to relocate elsewhere in Spain.

The prospect of an independent Catalonia has already prompted two major banks -- Sabadell and CaixaBank -- and other listed firms to move their registered headquarters to other parts of Spain.

The exodus continued on Monday as real estate business Colonial and toll-road company Abertis became the latest big names to move their base from the wealthy northeastern region.

The transfers come ahead of a Tuesday speech by Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont that separatists hope will include a unilateral declaration of independence.

Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people about the size of Belgium, generates about 20 percent of Spain's economic output and 25 percent of its exports.

It is home to 40 percent of Spain's companies which employ over 200 people, experts say.

As a separate country its gross domestic product would be about as big as Portugal's or Finland's.

Signs have popped up that the uncertainty over Catalonia's future has started to have an impact on small firms as well.

"We got a call from a customer who was interested in our services but when we said we were based in Barcelona, that was a problem," Maria Hinojosa, an employee of a financial consultancy told AFP.

Pedro Gomez, who works at a Barcelona real estate firm, said the independence push had "dampened interest" in buying property.

"People now think more before investing, at least they want to wait and see what happens," he said while he smoked a cigarette outside his office.

- 'Really anxious' -

Customers of Catalan banks have become worried about their savings after the lenders moved their headquarters.

"We have been really anxious, we have our money at CaixaBank, we called them twice," said Mercedes Cortinas, 51, a Barcelona stay-at-home mother of two.

With the memory still fresh in many Spaniards' minds of the near bankruptcy of Banco Popular, bought by rival lender Santander in June, some clients of Catalan banks have "moved their money", said Juan Fernando Robles, an economics professor at Spain's UNED university.

"Some clients have moved their money out of Catalonia to branches of the same bank outside of the region and others have moved their savings to other banks," he said.

Not everyone is worried.

"I don't think anything will happen," said Ana Delgada, 39, an employee of a courier service as she unloaded some packages.

If the Catalan government declares independence unilaterally, Spain's central government could end the crisis by suspending its powers, she said.

Juan Jose Brugera, the president of the Cercle d'Economia, a powerful regional economic lobby, urged Puigdemont during a weekend meeting not to go ahead with the independence declaration and think about "the economic consequences," a source at the lobby said.

Catalonia's largest employers' association, the Foment del Treball, issued a statement Monday warning that a declaration of independence could lead to the region's "economic insolvency".

- 'We're leaving' -

Increasing the pressure on Puigdemont, Abertis said Monday it was movings its headquarters to Madrid "due to the legal insecurity generated by the political situation in Catalonia".

There is now just one company in the benchmark Ibex 35 index of most traded Spanish shares with its headquarters in Catalonia -- biopharmaceuticals firm Grifols.

Changing their headquarters allows firms to ensure that they will remain in the euro zone in case of secession and will continue to pay their taxes to the Spanish state and not to a newly formed Catalan tax office.

"Companies think 'If we suddenly find ourselves in a territory that is not in the euro zone, legal certainty would no longer be guaranteed and taxation would be an issue, so we're leaving'," said Jesus Castillo, southern Europe economist at French bank Natixis.

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