MADERUELO, Spain (Reuters) - A queue of pensioners waits to board a brown and green bus in the medieval village of Maderuelo on Spain’s arid central plains. It only comes once a month and won’t take them anywhere, but they’re mostly happy with the service.
The bus, parked up alongside a van selling frozen fish, is a mobile bank run by bailed-out Spanish lender Bankia (BKIA.MC) to serve remote areas with no branches. Inside it looks much like any other small branch, but for the elastic bands that keep the furniture in place when it’s on the move.
Martin, a 71-year-old villager, would prefer more frequent visits, like the weekly service that used to be provided by the local bank that merged into Bankia.
“It’s not normal to have to take cash out for the whole month. What if it gets stolen?” he said.
This is the front-line reality of banking cuts across Europe, where lenders from Italy to France to Bulgaria, brought low by economic turmoil, are slashing costs and services.
Banks have shut about 20,000 branches across Europe in the last four years, including 5,500 last year and 7,200 in 2011, according to a Reuters analysis of European Central Bank data.
That represents the closure of about 8 percent of Europe’s branches since the financial crisis, and the cull is expected to continue for many years.
Banks are shrinking bloated domestic networks to improve efficiency and cutting overseas branches even more sharply, and a mobile phone and internet banking boom is accelerating the shift away from a traditional banking model, even if it risks leaving some customers adrift.
The cuts have been most severe in Spain, unraveling years of expansion by regional savings banks, which had landed it with the biggest network in Europe.
Its branch numbers were down 17 percent by the end of 2012 from four years earlier. But at just over 38,200 branches, Spain still had more branches per head than any country in Europe - one for every 1,210 people. A European bailout of weak lenders last year, including Bankia, was conditional on them shrinking further.
In remote areas such as Maderuelo, 150 kilometers (95 miles) from Madrid, many are grateful they have the bus. Elsewhere, newcomers to the service might not count themselves so lucky; in the eastern region of Valencia, the bank is rolling out the bus service for the first time as it cuts over 1,000 sites across the country.
Other countries such as France are also ripe for cuts. France had the most branches in Europe by the end of last year, with nearly 38,450, or one for every 1,709 people, behind only Spain and Cyprus per person.
Cyprus had one branch per 1,265 people, and its banks, rocked by links to the tumbling Greek economy, also have to shrink after an EU bailout.
Many banks admit they are not cutting branches as quickly as they should, wary of putting off clients just as bank earnings are recovering, and fearful of a public or political backlash in countries like Britain, where some of the biggest lenders were rescued by the taxpayer.
“When you close a branch, you run the danger of losing at least a few clients,” said Paris-based Fabrice Asvazadourian, global co-head of financial services at consultant Roland Berger. “It’s the moment that gives people an excuse to consider switching banks.”
French banks are cutting branches at a slower pace than Spanish peers, trimming only 79 in 2012, according to ECB data.
It had shed less than 3 percent of its network in the four years to the end of 2012, while 5 percent of UK branches and more than 8 percent of German ones pulled down the shutters for the last time. The number of branches plummeted by a third in Denmark and by a quarter in the Netherlands.
A flurry of Spanish bank mergers in the past three years in part explains the deep cuts. A 2008 property crash that gutted banks’ earnings and led to a European rescue added urgency to the cull as the economy fell into recession for the best part of the last five years.
The country shed nearly 700 more branches in the first three months of 2013, data from the Bank of Spain showed.
“In Spain, the economic problems have been a catalyst. Perhaps without that things could have carried on the way they were for a little longer,” said a Madrid-based banker from Barclays (BARC.L).
Subsidizing unprofitable branches is a luxury few can now afford. Branches account for around 60 percent of retail banking costs, including property and refurbishment spending as well as staff pay, Deutsche Bank researchers estimated.
Formats such as internet banking are adding to the incentive to shut outlets. These could yield 15 billion to 20 billion euros in extra earnings by 2021 for European banks, according to consultants McKinsey and industry body the European Financial Management and Marketing Association.
In France, major banks such as BNP Paribas (BNPP.PA), Societe Generale (SOGN.PA) and Credit Agricole (CAGR.PA) have made clear their intention to cut costs as retail revenues are squeezed by belt-tightening consumers.
In Britain, with a branch network one-third of France’s or Spain‘s, banks have almost halved branch numbers since 1990. Senior bankers privately say a network of 700-800 outlets would be an optimal size for a bank covering all of Britain. None of the big five have so few. Lloyds (LLOY.L) has three times that (2,260), and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS.L) more than twice (1,750), excluding almost 1,000 branches they are already selling between them.
Cuts across Europe should allow banks to improve the branches that remain, and many are targeting a “look and feel” akin to the stores of consumer electronics powerhouse Apple (AAPL.O), combining tellers and technology.
But it’s a transition that risks leaving millions of clients behind, unless banks keep up minimal physical services. In Corral de Ayllon, a Spanish village of 60-odd inhabitants near Maderuelo, where most people are farmers or pensioners, changing habits will be hard.
Like many in the village, retired local farmer Tomas Aribas withdraws cash using account booklets and fears that in future the banking service might be inaccessible to him and his neighbors.
“We’d have to learn about the Internet to be able to use it,” he said.
Additional reporting by Christian Plumb in Paris, Laura Noonan and Steve Slater in London; Editing by Will Waterman