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Spanish companies hunt in packs. Between 1992 and 2001 they bought €80bn of assets in Latin America. UK purchases followed, including O2, Abbey National and BAA. The likely addition of Scottish Power will take the total acquired enterprise value to €83bn. China seems to be the next destination. Telefónica aims to buy 8 per cent of PCCW, alongside partner China Netcom. On Wednesday, BBVA invested €989m in CITIC, the bank.

This legacy has marked the balance sheets of the three largest companies, Grupo Santander, Telefónica and BBVA. Despite some big write-offs, goodwill is equivalent to 52 per cent of combined book equity. Dealmaking remains critical: Telefónica and BBVA have explicit objectives to be among the biggest companies in their sectors. Given that the ‘big three’ make up about half of Spain’s stock market, the surprise is that it has done so well, only lagging behind Europe severely after Latin American shocks and outperforming since 2004.

One potential explanation is smart deal-making. The Latin American record is mixed: think of Repsol’s instinct for front-running political turmoil or Telefónica’s struggling Mexican and Brazilian mobile assets. But more recent buys, Abbey and O2 for example, have confounded the critics. Tax relief on goodwill acquired overseas helps nudge up returns. There is some selectivity. BBVA walked away from Italy’s BNL last year, while Telefónica has a moratorium on big deals until 2008.

Still, the suspicion is that corporate Spain owes a lot to its home market. At the nine-month stage this year, domestic bank assets and utility profits both rose by double digits year-on-year. Telecoms growth is low but exceeds typical European levels.

This in turn reflects fast population and economic growth and also high inflation. Nominal output – which aggregate profits should roughly track – rose at an annual average of 8 per cent between 1999 and 2006, compared to Germany’s 2 per cent. Barring a house price crash, the gap is unlikely to close significantly soon. With that tailwind behind them, small wonder Spain’s chief executives are ready to attack the world.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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