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To save banks the time has come for an Italian TARP

by Luigi Zingales

24 Exclusive content for IT24

Winston Churchill loved to say that the Americans would alway do the right thing — after having exhausted all other possible alternatives.

For Italy's government and its banks, this is a hope more than a certainty. The only certainty is that every possible alternative to save the Italian banking system has been explored, unsuccessfully. And that time is short. Questions as to the real value of deteriorated credit on bank balance sheets is producing a generalized crisis of confidence in the banking system that could end up being devastating.

To avoid it, the only option is direct intervention in the capital situation of banks. It's not a recommendation that I offer with a light heart — but desperate times call for desperate measures. And desperation there is.

The reason why I came to this conclusion some time ago is the first-hand experience I had with the US crisis of 2007-2008. In that case as well, the first attempt was to create a fund to acquire toxic debt (the American version of our deteriorated loans), then to have the state buy them. In the end, it became clear that the only solution was to inject public capital into the banking system.

In an ideal world, this would be carried out by the Italian Treasury. Since we don't live in an ideal world, and EU rules forbid a move like that before having carried out a bail-in for 8% of bank assets, the only possible solution is to go through the Cassa depositi e prestiti (CDP) outside the perimeter of the state.

First of all, we understand the size of the problem — about €200 billion worth of deteriorated credit valued at 40%, while the market insist on valuing it at 20%. So a capital infusion equal to €40 billion would be able to absorb the losses even in the worst case scenario, thus calming account holders and bond holders.

Thus the CDP should commit itself to invest in every bank a figure equating to 20% of non performing loans. The secret is to issue the capital in the form of “preferred” convertible shares. The advantage of U.S. preferred shares compared with ours is that they are redeemable by the issuer at a predetermined value. If the bank is healthy, it can easily, over successive months, issue ordinary shares on the market to re-acquire the preferred shares it issued, protecting the value of existing shares. If, instead, the bank is not healthy, this capital can serve as a guarantee.

The preferred shares are subordinate to all debt (including subordinated bonds) but they have priority over existing shares.

So this doesn't protect shareholders, but only account holders and bond holders. If losses are high, existing shareholders are swept away and preferred shares become ordinary shares.

To avoid bankers profiting, US preferred shares are bound to three important clauses. First, it's prohibited to pay any form of dividend on ordinary shares until the preferred are reacquired. Second, there are rigid (and very low) limits on management compensation. Third, they contain a warrant (the right to purchase additional shares at a predetermined price that is above the current market price). This guarantees the taxpayer part of the benefit of the transaction if it succeeds. We need to follow that example.

In the US case, the preferred shares had no voting rights until they were converted, because there was fear of an excessive interference in credit allocation. Obviously, this problem also exists in Italy but — given the inferior quality of Italian corporate governance — there's also a risk that management would profit from taxpayer money.

That's why I think it was a good compromise to assign to the preferred shares the right to name the entire board of auditors and the chairman of the board, leaving current shareholders the right to manage the company, at least until the preferreds are converted.

There's obviously a political problem. In the US, government intervention produced the Tea Party in reaction and, in a way, created a degree of consensus around a personality like Donald Trump. How can we avoid that happening in Italy?

On one hand, it's necessary to explain what the alternative is:the Etruria case times one hundred. State intervention isn't meant to rescue bankers but to save account holders and all those who were sold supposedly “secure” bank bonds.

And on the other hand, there must be no shadow of a doubt that the move was meant to protect the usual suspects. So there should be an investigatory commission set up, composed not of politicians but of independent experts. They must determine the potential responsibility of people and institutions and bring their findings publicly to Parliament within nine months.

At this difficult time, the government should not be afraid to act: inaction would be a much greater fault. Nor should it fear that Italian citizens won't understand. If appropriately informed, they are more than able to understand and today, more than ever, they deserve respect and trust. The important thing is not to lie to them by saying that it's all the U.K.'s fault. Brexit was only the famed spark, all the rest is locally produced.