The banks of Italy face another crisis

by Shaun Richards

2020 has been quite a year and something of an annus horribilis.What such events reveal if we borrow the words of Warren Buffet is those who have been swimming with swimming trunks. If there is a group anywhere in the world that has been doing this it has been the Italian banks who had enough problems before the Covid-19 pandemic started. So much so that at least in one case I am reminded of the famous words of Paul Simon.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again

Monte dei Paschi di Siena

If there is a bank that deserves that lyric it is Monte Paschi which has had bailout after bailout but still rather resembles the walking dead in banking terms.

MILAN (Reuters) – Italy’s clean-up scheme for Monte dei Paschi di Siena BMPS.MI is set to be approved by shareholders of the state-owned bank on Sunday after two years’ in the planning, but it is unlikely to be enough to attract a buyer.

The last bit raises a grim smile after all nobody wanted Monte Paschi even in what were considered to be the good times of the “Euro boom” so who would want it now? Along the way the Italian taxpayer has taken quite a hammering.

The government rescued Monte dei Paschi (MPS) in 2017, paying 5.4 billion euros ($6.3 billion) for a 68% stake now worth 1 billion euros, which it must sell next year under the terms of the 8.2 billion euro bailout.

I think that rescued is the wrong word as it implies a sort of permanence, whereas the reality has been that Monte Paschi rather like Oliver! is always asking for more. Indeed one route involves the Italian taxpayer taking another hit.

To boost the appeal of the world’s oldest bank still in business, Italy has been working on a scheme to cut MPS’ problem loan ratio below the industry average, offloading 8 billion euros in soured debts to state-owned bad loan manager AMCO.

The repeating problem for Monte Pasch is that it needs more money but getting it from shareholders is shall we say problematic when you have a track record like this.

MPS has been laid low by years of mismanagement, an ill-advised acquisition and risky derivatives deals.

It faces 10 billion euros in legal claims, mostly from disgruntled investors who lost money in a string of cash calls worth 18.5 billion euros in the past decade.

Now if we do some back of the envelope maths we have at least 23 billion Euros lost in the deals above to which is added risk on another 8 billion. Against that we have a bank valued at 1 billion Euros. It was only a few years ago that the then Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzo told us MPS was a good investment. Surely that must come under the Italian version of the trade descriptions act?

We can also note something of an Alice In Wonderland world.

To authorise the clean-up, which shaves 1.1 billion euros off MPS’ capital and must be completed by Dec. 1, the European Central Bank has demanded MPS raises fresh capital via costly issues of Tier 1 and Tier 2 debt.

MPS paid 8.5% for the Tier 2 issue, and analysts say Additional Tier1 (AT1) debt is a non-starter for a bank that expects to remain loss-making through 2022 and would not be allowed, as such, to pay a coupon on it.

Paying 8.5% for your debt hardly helps your profitability and wait for the original estimates of what it would have to pay on riskier debt.

The ECB has asked the bank to prove that private investors would be ready to buy 30% of a potential Tier1 issue but broker Equita estimated such debt could cost Monte dei Paschi as much as 15% a year, further weakening its finances.

The only way I can see this circle being squared is a new ECB asset purchase programme which will allow investors to buy such debt and then pass it on.

Merger Mania

This is another way of kicking the can if you have a problem. My late father used to argue that many mergers were driven by the reality that such an event makes the accounts pretty opaque for a couple of years. Thus something like this was little surprise.

Intesa Sanpaolo’s public tender offer for UBI Banca shares, launched on February 17, 2020, ended on 30 July, with acceptance by 90.2% of UBI’s shareholders.

Following a five-month process, Intesa Sanpaolo successfully surpassed the two-thirds acceptance by UBI Banca shareholders needed to ensure the merger of UBI into Intesa Sanpaolo.

That really defines bad timing doesn’t it? Whilst it is hard to think of a good time to buy an Italian bank buying this year is bad even on that perspective. But according to Intesa it is something of a triumph.

In a statement following the announcement of the provisional results, Intesa Sanpaolo CEO Carlo Messina said that a new European banking leader had been created.

Messina also underlined that Intesa Sanpaolo has become the first bank in Europe to launch a new consolidation phase that will strengthen the Continent’s banking sector.

Considering the record this looks like very faint praise.

UBI is the best run medium-sized bank in Italy

Putting it another way the Intesa share price went above 2.6 Euros when the deal was announced and is 1.58 Euros now.

Unicredit

This is desperately trying to avoid being a white knight for Monte Paschi. It has enough of its own problems with a share price of 7 Euros which is half that of what it was as recently as February.

Comment

This has been something of a slow motion car crash. I am not surprised that we see legal claims being enacted because whilst the Covid-19 pandemic came out of the blue, it is also true that money has been raised whilst the truth has not been told. The official view of the Bank of Italy from April reflected this.

Italian banks are facing the new risks from a
stronger position than at the start of the global
financial crisis. Between 2007 and 2019, the
ratio of the highest loss-absorbing capital to
risk-weighted assets almost doubled, loans are
now funded entirely by deposits, and there are no
signs of a weakening of depositor confidence in
banks.

There are certainly plenty of signs of weakening shareholder confidence in banks. This comes in spite of the fact that they have been handed another freebie.

#Italy‘s 10-year bond #yield down to new record-low of just 0.79%… ( @jsblokland )

For newer readers Italian banks hold a lot of government bonds ( around 400 billion Euros) so the rise in price driven by ECB buying allows them to sell at a high price or at least to put such prices in their accounts. Although of course they did have a scare earlier in the year after the “bond spreads” statement made by ECB President Christine Lagarde.

We have seen various fund emerge to take on the bad debts and regular readers will recall the private-sector Atlante and Atlante II. The latter got renamed as the Italian Recovery Fund which I think speaks for itself. These days there is a state backed vehicle described by Fitch in May like this.

AMCO is a debt purchaser and servicer with nearly EUR25 billion of assets under management and a leading position in the unlikely-to-pay (UTP) loans sector. While operating at market conditions the government’s backing makes AMCO the reference company for direct or indirect state-led bail-outs of distressed banks.

So with “unlikely-to-pay” we have yet another new phrase and change of language.

What we have seen is in fact the consequence of kicking the can into the future and discovering that the future is worse than the present. We look back on a pile of losses for shareholders and taxpayers for what exactly? At the same time a bus has been driven through Euro area rules.