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Italy’s non-existent bank rescue strategy

by Luigi Zingales

24 Exclusive content for IT24

Fifteen months have gone since the “rescue” of the four regional banks and almost one year since the creation of the government mandates and privately funded bank rescue fund Atlante .

After all this time, we can conclude that the strategy adopted by the government of postponing the resolution of banks' problems and pretending they are not so serious (a strategy also known as “extend and pretend”) is not working. Deferment has cost Italy (and some regions in particular) one year of economic growth.

Lending to businesses last year dropped 6% in Veneto and 3% in Tuscany, while it remained broadly stable in Piedmont and Lombardy (+0.2% and -0.2% respectively).

The main difference between these regions comes from the banking crisis, which hit Veneto (Veneto Banca and Banca Popolare di Vicenza) and Tuscany (Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena and Etruria) harder than Piedmont and Lombardy.

The impact of the quality of banks' assets on lending is not a secret. The European Commission has also written about it.

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But why has the government sat on its hands for more than one year? Part of the problem is the illusion that the crisis is due only to the treachery of foreign funds, who value non-performing loans at around 20% of their book value when they are worth much more.

It's true that NPLs over the past two years have yielded on average 40%, according to the Bank of Italy. But such a valuation does not include legal costs and the time to collect them.

It also doesn’t consider the fact that higher the amount of NPLs, the more difficult to collect on them, since the (few) existing real estate collateral loses some of its value when sold in bulk.

UniCredit, which did not believe in this illusion and wrote down its bad loans to 12.94%, succeeded in the difficult plan to raise €13 billion of fresh capital.

The banks who lacked the same courage are still in a crisis.

In order to support the illusion about the value of bad loans (and postpone the “redde rationem”), the government strongly backed the creation of the Atlante fund, designed to buy NPLs and then unload on the collectivity (state backed lender Cassa Depositi e Prestiti and state controlled posted service Poste Italiane) and unaware insurers (Generali and Cattolica) the losses that UniCredit and Intesa Sanpaolo were facing for guaranteeing the recapitalization of the two Veneto-based banks.

The European Commission said that “Atlante's funding structure represents a source of interdependence between stronger and weaker players. This could lead to contagion in case of unexpected losses from investments.”

Far from being a factor of stability, the Atlante fund risks of putting the entire system at risk.

A question remains: what could the government do if the European Commission blocks any move?

This is Italy's usual strategy of accusing Europe of its own mistakes.

Contrarily to what people want us to believe, Europe has long called for intervening in the recapitalization of banks, like the one (very limited) approved by the government in December (and not yet implemented).

If the Commission has so far postponed the intervention on MPS, this is because it wants to prevent public money from going wasted, for example by reimbursing those who have no right to be compensated, like the hedge funds which bought MPS's subordinated bonds in the past year.

We should thank the Commission for this position.

If €20 billion of the bailout fund approved by the Cabinet in December is (likely) not enough, many of our European partners are open to the idea that Italy resorts to the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). The fund was tapped by Spain in 2012, when the country needed to dispose of the many NPLs piled up during the real estate crisis. After using the fund and recapitalizing its banks, Spain returned to grow by more than 3% per year. What is Italy waiting for to do the same?