Alberto Aza, CECA spokesperson. Yesterday, he attended a colloquium in Malaga on financial education as part of the Edufinet project, organised by CECA and Unicaja Baloncesto. The swimmer Ona Carbonell, ambassador of the Obra Social of CECA's member entities, participated in the event.

In figures, what is the scale of the social work of the former savings banks?

I would first like to explain what Obra Social is. These are the charitable activities carried out by banking foundations, resulting from the spin-off of savings banks into banks and foundations, which often retain a significant shareholding in these new banking institutions. This means that a large part of the dividends of these banks revert to society, because they go directly to the foundations and their Obra Social. Over the last five years, the foundations have allocated €3.8 billion to Obra Social; in 2020, a year of great complexity due to restrictions on mobility, €770 million were allocated and 50,000 activities were carried out, with 24 million beneficiaries. The allocation for social welfare projects - earmarked for the most vulnerable groups - accounts for the lion's share. The Obra Social of CECA's member entities is also the leading private social investor in Spain.

Has the reputation of banks improved after the pandemic?

Public opinion has been very positive towards the performance of the banking sector. These institutions have implemented emergency measures of significant force, such as the channelling of ICO loans, the granting of mortgage moratoriums, the advancing of unemployment benefits or retirement pensions... According to a survey by the consultancy firm GAD3, the measures implemented by the banks are valued at 8 out of 10, which is a very high score, because it is the average. In less than a year, the emergency funding mobilised by the banks has exceeded by 30% all the European funds that will arrive over the next six years.

It has been said that in 2008 banking was the problem and now it has become the solution. But to what extent has banking suffered from the abrupt halt in activity?

The soundness of the banking sector has allowed it to be in a position to lend from the outset, due to its internal strength in terms of capital, governance and transparency. The impact of the crisis has been lessened by these circumstances. However, exceptional provisions have been made in 2020, to anticipate the impact of the crisis on the results. For the time being, however, there is no upturn in defaults, in fact we are even better off now than at the beginning of the pandemic. But surely there will be.

How far will branch downsizing go?

The banking is in an adaptation process as it are a lot sectors because of the advance of the digitisation of our companies and a stage of negative types, that affects to the return of the companies and that they come keeping up from 2014. One of the major changes is the consumption habits of customers. Face-to-face customer service is becoming increasingly less relevant and the vast majority prefer to be serviced through digital channels, especially with regard to transactional operations, which is what branches have traditionally done. This is why branches are being refocused to become customer service centres offering higher-value services.

Will the mergers continue?

It is not something new. Supervisors have insisted that they happen. The level of bank concentration in Spain is intermediate, therefore, on that side, there could be more transactions. But mergers respond to a criterion of efficiency (more income with less costs) and Spanish banks are more efficient than the European average. So, from this perspective it does not appear that there is a need for mergers.

The current scenario is therefore balanced.

Apparently so, but the decisions are up to each individual entity.

What is your opinion regarding the new competition posed by fintechs and technology companies such as Amazon?

The emergence of new competitors is not only good but necessary, because they bring innovation to the sector. But if we want to compete on the same playing field we have to be subject to the same rules. We have to think about the consumer. Much of this regulation is undertaken to protect the customer. What happens to the customer who contracts services with these fintechs but is not legally covered? Who do they turn to legally?

We have two associations in the banking sector. Explain the raison d'être behind CECA

We share interests with the Spanish Banking Association (AEB) and work closely together with it. But there are differentiating elements, such as the Obra Social, which has a 300-year history. We also differ in terms of territorial roots and the concept of retail banking. The DNA of the CECA member entities remains the same as when they were all savings banks and we saw this with the pandemic.