More companies quit Catalonia as break from Spain looms

Catalonia: What you need to know
Catalonia: What you need to know

A trickle of companies fleeing the restive Spanish region of Catalonia threatened to turn into a flood as a second major bank and two more firms said they would move their head offices to other parts of the country.

CaixaBank (CAIXY), energy supplier Gas Natural Fenosa and Dogi International Fabrics said Friday they were moving their legal bases from Catalonia's capital, Barcelona.

Catalonia's government was planning to make a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain early next week following a disputed referendum last Sunday in which two million Catalans voted to break away.

It was unclear whether it would press on with those plans but a pro-independence party said Friday the time had come.

"We think now is the time for the institutions to declare independence. The people have already spoken and called for independence, and now it's time for institutions to follow suit," Carles Riera, spokesman for the CUP party, said at a press conference in Barcelona.

Several companies aren't waiting to see how the politics play out.

CaixaBank, Spain's third largest lender by market value, said it would move its registered office to Valencia. It said its priority was to protect "clients, shareholders and employees" given the current political and social situation.

Gas Natural Fenosa said the legal uncertainty stemming from recent events had prompted its decision, which was aimed at protecting the "interests of the company, its customers, employees, creditors and shareholders."

On Thursday, Banco Sabadell confirmed that it would move its legal base from Barcelona to Alicante. And earlier this week, biotech firm Oryzon Genomics said it was moving from Barcelona to Madrid to "optimize its operational effectiveness and the relationship with its investors."

Catalonia's regional government was scrambling Friday to prevent any further damage to the economy.

Local officials said they had formed a committee to help reassure companies unnerved by the prospect of a break from Spain, and answer questions about the region's current economic and political situation.

"The main objective of the initiative is to provide calm and security to every company that operates in Catalonia," said Josep Lluís Mérida, a spokesperson for the Catalan government.

Related: How will the Catalonia vs. Spain fight unfold?

Spain's national government made it easier for firms to relocate on Friday, passing a law that removes some of the red tape required to shift a company's legal home.

Christopher Dottie, president of the British Chamber of Commerce in Spain, said that independence would mean new risks for businesses.

He said that some firms might want to move their legal home to Spanish regions "where there are perceptions of stability and security" rather than remain where there is "instability and a perception of risk."

"We're not saying what should happen," Dottie said. "We are apolitical. But we do have a responsibility to warn of the economic costs of uncertainty and instability."

Related: Catalan police chief in court amid independence deadlock

Catalonia is Spain's most economically productive region, hosting 7,100 foreign companies including Volkswagen (VLKAY), Nissan (NSANF) and Cisco (CSCO).

If the region declares independence, the Spanish government in Madrid may react by imposing direct rule on the region -- a crackdown that could escalate tensions and create further turmoil, scaring away investors, worrying savers, and disrupting business.

If Catalonia succeeds in breaking away, it's likely to find itself shut out of the European Union.

Catalan firms would face the prospect of operating in a newly independent state with no formal trade agreements, a situation even more serious than Brexit, said Carsten Hesse, a European economist at Berenberg Bank.

Related: Catalonia, Spain and 400 years of mistrust

Some businesses in the region were reluctant to detail their plans. Infrastructure firm Abertis declined to comment on reports that it was considering a move.

A spokesperson for SEAT, a Volkswagen (VLKAY)-owned automaker, described reports that it was considering moving its legal base as "just a rumor."

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