Wilbur Ross, the billionaire who's taken stakes in distressed U.S. and European lenders, said he's interested in Spanish banking assets as the country takes steps to resolve bad loans stemming from its real-estate bubble.

Ross's WL Ross & Co., which holds about 10 percent of Bank of Ireland Plc. (BKIR) and teamed up with Richard Branson to buy part of Northern Rock Plc, is in talks "almost every week" with representatives of the large Spanish banks, he said in an interview in Abu Dhabi, without naming potential targets.

"Maybe next year will be the year for Spain," he said. "We've been doing a lot of work in Spain. We've put a lot of time and effort into Spain but haven't put any money in yet."

Officials in the euro zone's fourth-largest economy are setting up a bad bank, similar to one in Ireland, to help lenders shed soured real estate loans and to boost lending growth. The government is seeking to purge about 180 billion euros ($235 billion) of bad assets linked to property, which its central bank says remain on lenders' balance sheets.

"Spain has yet to go through the catharsis of real estate," Ross said. "I don't know if it'll be another six months or another 12 months or whatever, but at some point we might very well do something in Spain."

The country's economy contracted for a fifth quarter, with gross domestic product shrinking 0.4 percent in the three months through September from the previous quarter, the Bank of Spain said today in an estimate in its monthly bulletin.

Ross's firm invested about 350 million pounds ($560 million) with Branson's Virgin Money to take over the retail operations of Northern Rock, the British bank whose reliance on short-term financing resulted in its becoming the first casualty of the global liquidity crunch.

Ross was also among five investors who took a 35 percent stake in Bank of Ireland, one of six lenders guaranteed by taxpayers in 2008, for 1.1 billion euros. He has a board seat.

He has taken stakes in institutions such as Oregon's Cascade Bancorp (CACB), New Jersey's Sun Bancorp, and union-owned Amalgamated Bank in New York, all of which required financial aid after writing down bad real estate loans.

Spain secured a 100 billion-euro financial-sector lifeline earlier this year and may request a European Union bailout, putting the region's newest crisis-fighting tools to the test in an economy that's twice the combined size of Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

"Spain in many ways is a very, very interesting country," Ross said. "But we're thinking they're just now beginning to recognize the magnitude of the problems. Until now they've been in total denial."

Bad loans as a proportion of total lending in Spain jumped to a record 10.5 percent in August from a restated 10.1 percent in July as 9.3 billion euros of loans were newly classified as being in default, according to data published by the Bank of Spain on its website on Oct. 18. The ratio has climbed for 17 straight months from 0.72 percent in December 2006, before Spain's property boom turned to bust.

The country's request for European Union financial aid to shore up its banks is increasing concern about its growing liabilities. Standard & Poor's downgraded the country's debt rating by two levels to BBB-, one step above junk, from BBB+ on Oct. 10, saying it wasn't clear who will bear the cost of recapitalizing banks.

"Bad assets are going to have to be removed from the banks," Ross said. "It's very, very difficult to have a bank simultaneously managing a huge amount of bad assets and trying to grow its good assets. It's just tough."

The firm would probably look to invest when there is a need for a cash injection after assets are removed into a so-called "bad bank," he said. Many of the Spanish regional banks which expanded into other areas need to "shrink" back to their original locales and focus on building core deposits, he said.

Spanish banks expanded lending by 3.5 times from 2000 to 2008 when the credit boom peaked, according to Bank of Spain data. The lenders had more than 46,000 branches open in 2008 compared with about 39,000 in 2000 as they expanded their networks to accompany the boom.

President Mariano Rajoy has struggled to trim a 2011 budget deficit that was more than three times the EU limit, after the country's deepening recession pushed the jobless rate over 25 percent.

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