What will happen to Bank Carige of Italy?

by Shaun Richards

One of the longest running themes of this site has been the ostrich like behaviour of Italy about its banks. The official view has been that a corner is just about to be turned on what keeps turning out to be a straight road. I still recall Prime Minster Renzi assuring investors that shares in the trouble Monte Paschi di Siena were a good purchase. Here is an example of this from him in Il Sole from January 2016 via Google Translate and the emphasis is mine.

“The recent turbulence around some Italian banks indicates that our credit system – solid and strong thanks to the extraordinarily high savings of Italian families – still needs consolidation, so that there are fewer but stronger banks (…) Today the bank it is healed, and investing is a bargain. On Mps has been knocked down speculation but it is a good deal, has gone through crazy vicissitudes but today is healed, it is a nice brand. Perhaps in this process that will last a few months must find partners because it must be with others “.

Since then the bank has seen the Italian state take a majority stake and the share price is a bit less than forty times lower than when Renzi made his statement. This has been a familiar theme of the crisis where investors have been encouraged to stump up more money for troubled banks with promises of a brighter future. But it kept turning out that the future was ever more troubled rather than bright as good money followed bad in being lost.

Even worse the whole sector was weakened by the way that other types of bailout were provided by the banking sector itself. For example via the Atlante or Atlas fund which saw banks investing to recapitalise other banks and to buy bad loans. Regular readers will recall that the establishment view was that the purchase of bad loans by this and other vehicles was something of a new dawn for the sector. The reality was that as things got worse there was Atlante 2 before the whole idea got forgotten. It is rude to point out that the subject of today Bank Carige was considered strong enough to put 20 million Euros into the first version of Atlante.

A deeper perspective can be provided by the fact that the Italian banking laws are called the “Draghi Laws” after the President of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi. In his new role he has undertaken three policies which have helped the Italian banks. They have been particularly large beneficiaries of his liquidity operations called TLTROs which have provided cheap ( the deposit rate is -0.4%) for banks. Then the QE programme boosted the price of Italian government bonds benefiting the Italian banks large holdings. Then more opaquely at least in terms of media analysis it bought covered bonds ( mortgage bonds) in three phases and still holds around 271 billion Euros of them.

The catch of this from Mario’s point of view is that liquidity is only a short-term solution and soon falls short when the real questions are about solvency. Even worse the way this umbrella shielded the banks from the rain meant that the promised reforms never happened and the path was made worse rather than better. Also if we think of this from the point of Italy and its economy we see that we have part of the reason for its ongoing economic lost decade style troubles. The banks have helped suck it lower. Also and hat tip to Merryn Somerset Webb for this a letter to the FT today has on another topic covered the issue really rather well.

ECB can’t solve problems because to attempt to do so would be to admit that problems exist.

Carige

If we go back to 2017 we see that as well as a worrying departure of board directors and the beginning of an attempted asset sale which was to include bad loans there was this in December.

Italy’s Banca Carige said on Friday it had raised 544.4 million euros ($645 million) following its recently concluded new share issue, topping minimum regulatory demands. ( Reuters)

There were various features to this of which the first is that existing shareholders took a right caning or as the Italian regulator put it.

The Banca Carige capital increase has characteristics of hyperdilution.

In return there was the implication that the ECB had approved this and a corner had been turned. Less than a year later this all went sour as the ECB decided that Bank Carige needed yet another rights issue in yet another example of the themes described above. This time in spite of statements to the contrary no-one seemed silly enough to believe the official promises and this rumbled on until the New Year when the ECB decided that the first business day of 2019 was an opportune moment to do this.

The mass resignation of Carige directors that followed has given the ECB an opportunity to be creative. The central bank has used its powers of early intervention to step in to stabilise the bank’s governance. It has appointed three special administrators, including Innocenzi, tasked with restoring capital requirements. ( Reuters)

If you want some gallows humour this was described as “temporary” when it was pretty much certain to be anything but as a major shareholder ( Malaclaza) decided it had lost enough. It was hardly likely to believe the ECB again.

The Italian Government

This found itself in between a rock and a hard place as the Five-Star movement has consistently opposed both bailouts and bail-ins. Yet the government of which it is a member took I am told only 8 minutes to decide this last night.

The decree, signed off on Monday after a surprise cabinet meeting, will allow the bank to benefit from state-backed guarantees for new bond issues and funding from the Bank of Italy.

The lender, which last year failed to secure shareholder backing for a capital increase, will also be able to request access to state-backed precautionary recapitalization, if needed.

So yet again in a choice between the interests of the people and the interests of “the precious” we see that the same old status quo continues to play.

Whatever you want
Whatever you like
Whatever you say
You pay your money
You take your choice
Whatever you need
Whatever you use
Whatever you win
Whatever you lose

One of my longest-running themes of this website gets another tick in the box and we even get some Italian style humour.

EU rules permit such a scheme only if the bank is solvent.

So solvent in fact that they can no longer find anyone willing to put their own money into it. Also seeing as Bank Carige cannot even see its own nose I doubt this will be a barrier for long.

According to a financial source close to the matter, Carige would only consider a request for precautionary recapitalization if new and unforeseen problems arose.

Comment

The issue here is that on a generic basis the events described above are so familiar now that even the use of phrases like groundhog day does not do the situation justice. There are always going to be problems because regulators invariably end up being captured by the industry they regulate and banking is perhaps the worst example of this. But changes were promised so long ago and yet the Italian taxpayer will find him/herself on the hook in addition to the 320 million Euro hybrid bond that the deposit protection fund bought late last year. Even worse they may end up backing this enough for someone else to be willing to take it over and profit from. Oh and so much for hybrid!

Meanwhile in a land far, far, away I see that the Financial Times has interviewed the head of the Euro area banking resolution body.

Speaking to the FT to mark three years since the SRB became fully operational at the start of 2016, Ms König said a page had been turned in how the bloc handled bank failures — not least after its first intervention, at Spain’s Banco Popular in 2017 — but that the system remained a work in progress.

There is no mention of Italy at all which is really rather breathtaking, although there may be an implied hint.

Making sure that bank crises could be contained without resorting to taxpayer help was “an ongoing challenge”, she said.

Some claim the lack of contagion is progress, but you see there is a clear flaw in that as the problems here were evident as long ago as 2014 so what is called the “smart money” will have gone long ago. In some ways this makes things worse because in another shocking failure of regulation Italian retail depositors were encouraged to buy bank bonds.

 

548 views