Italian banks still struggling along as country heads to the polls

 
Hayley Kirton
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Talk about bad timing: Monte dei Paschi is making its way through a rescue plan as the vote goes ahead (Source: Getty)

Italian lenders have been scrambling to bolster their position as the country heads to the polls today to vote in its constitution-changing referendum.

The country's banks, which are burdened with some €360bn (£301.5bn) in non-performing loans between them, have been suffering for some time and there are concerns a 'No' vote could send more unwanted shocks through the unstable system.

Monte dei Paschi di Siena finds itself in a particularly difficult situation. The lender, which is over 500 years old, is in the process of ironing out a rescue plan which would boost its capital by €5bn. The results of this summer's European Banking Authority stress tests showed the bank's capital could be wiped out in the event of a sharp economic downturn.

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The bank is now pushing ahead with key elements of the plan, despite the referendum background noise, as it aims to have everything put in place by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the Financial Times has reported today that fellow Italian lender Unicredit is closing in on a deal to sell its asset management division to French asset manager Amundi for more than €3bn, while new chief executive Jean-Pierre Mustier is due to unveil a turnaround plan for the lender later this month.

Unicredit has not responded to City A.M.'s request for comment at time of writing. Amundi has declined to comment.

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, who proposed the referendum to streamline the country's governance, has vowed to stand down from his role should 'No' triumph.

Renzi leaving could also be a blow for the banks. Over the summer, multiple reports suggested the prime minister had locked horns with European Commission decision makers as he tried convince them to let him go around an EU banking directive to allow the country to inject capital into the banking system.

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However, in a note issued ahead of the vote result, Erik Nielsen, group chief economist at Unicredit, said he did not share these worries.

"Most people fret about the question of bank restructuring if it turns out to be a no," Nielson wrote. "I'm less concerned. If Renzi resigns and Italy gets a caretaker government, I would expect the president to give it three mandates: revision of the electoral law, recapitalisation of the four banks, and an early election, probably in late 2017."

Although prices have started to recover, shares in the Italian banks have been travelling downwards in the run up to polling day. Unicredit's shares are around seven per cent lower than they were a month ago, Monte dei Paschi's 24 per cent lower and Banco Popolare's 14 per cent lower. Intesa Sanpaolo's shares are approximately flat compared with this time last month.

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