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Italy’s banking crisis is even worse than we thought

by Don Quijones

In this late winter of generalized discontent, it is not easy to pinpoint just where the biggest threat to Europe’s increasingly flimsy union lies, so intense is the competition. One obvious contender is the Eurozone’s third largest economy, Italy, which faces a banking crisis, an economic crisis, a debt crisis, and a political crisis all at the same time.

The country’s Five Star Movement is gaining momentum both in the polls and in its efforts to call for a referendum on euro membership. In the meantime, Italy’s newly installed government wants — indeed, needs — to bail out a growing number of banks but has neither the money nor the political capital to do so.

Things had gotten so bad that the country’s two bad banks (Atlante I and Atlante II), ostensibly created to stabilize the financial system, were themselves on the verge of collapse. Turns out that things are even worse than we had thought, following a blistering tirade on Tuesday from Italy’s bad banker-in-chief, Alessandro Penati.

There is no clear vision of the problem and no strategy,” Penati told a financial conference in Milan, according to Reuters. He said he was virtually working alone on rescues that had revealed “horror stories” within some banks.

In short, the insider blame game has begun.

Penati, whose boutique asset management firm, Quaestio Capital Management, was chosen to oversee the supervision of Atlante in late 2015, directed much of his ire at the banks themselves, in particular Italy’s two largest financial institutions, UniCredit and Intesa Sao Paolo. Atlante’s investors had, he said, shown “zero long-sightedness,” after declining to invest more in the fund, which has used 80% of its money to rescue two mid-sized banks in northeast Italy — Veneto Banca and Banca Popolare di Vicenza. Both these lenders now need more capital.

Intesa has devalued its stake in Atlante by 33% and a source has said Italy’s biggest bank, UniCredit, itself in serious need of help, could write it down by as much as 70%. “They invested in failed banks … you need to wait three years before assessing how much a bank like that is worth,” Penati said.

Penati’s comments echo previous criticism by Italian senior banker Giuseppe Guzzetti, who helped set up Atlante I and Atlante II. Unlike Penati, however, Guzzetti heaped much of the blame for the bad banks’ chronic underfunding on Credit Agricole and BNP Paribas, two of the French banks most exposed to Italian sovereign and banking debt but which refused to “do their part” in cleaning up Italy’s financial system.

The fact that private-sector institutions are refusing to provide more money to Atlante I or II and are instead writing down their current investments in those funds does not bode well for Italy’s chances of rescuing its collapsing banks with the help of the private sector. The original idea was that Atlante I and Atlante II would help create a secondary market for Italian non-performing loans (NPLs).

Now, that dream is in tatters. As shown by the recent farcical attempts to rescue Italy’s third largest bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS), without a robust secondary market, the task of cleaning up Italy’s bank balance sheets could prove near to impossible.

In December, Penati’s plan to buy into Italy’s biggest-ever sale of bad debts — €28 billion of loans written by MPS — fell apart when the bank failed to find any other major investors. According to Penati, the sale collapsed because it had been tied to a capital raising that had been “badly devised and even more badly executed.

In a statement that should send shivers down investors’ spines, Penati noted that his job had taken him inside some dark corners of Italian banking. “I had never looked at banks from the inside … I was stunned they are run in this way,” he said.

Given the sheer scale of the problem and the likely refusal of northern European countries to hand over a blank check for Italy’s government to rescue its broken banking system, especially in the lead up to national elections in Germany, any lingering hope that state intervention will do the trick is seriously misplaced, as Penati himself warns.

As eurocrats hone their skills at their time-honored game of extend-and-pretend, Italy’s banking insiders are turning on each other like ferrets in a sack. All the while, investors are voting with their feet. As shown by Italy’s Target2 imbalances, the exodus out of Italian assets continues to gather momentum and the spread between the Italian 10-year yield and the German 10-year yield — the ultimate indicator of the dreaded Doom Loop — just reached a level that hadn’t been seen since November 2014.

It is against this torrid backdrop that Italy’s biggest bank, UniCredit, which ranks among the 30 global systemically important banks (G-SIBS) identified by the Financial Stability Board — i.e., is genuinely too big to fail — is somehow supposed to pull off the biggest capital expansion in Italian stock market history. If it fails in that endeavor, it won’t be long before the dominoes begin to fall.

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