“Operation Overlord.”

By Don Quijones, Spain, UK, & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.

There are rumors currently doing the rounds that Italy’s banking problems have finally been put to rest. The FTSE Italia All-Share Banks Index has soared about 40% over the last 12 months, about double the advance by the Euro Stoxx Banks Index. Six of the top seven gainers in the latter index this year are Italian.

The story of Italy’s non-performing loans, which just a year ago terrified global investors and posed a systemic threat to the entire Eurozone economy, “is over,” according to Fabrizio Pagani, the chief of staff at Italy’s Ministry of Economy and Finance. Pagani believes that now that the banking sector is well and truly on the mend, work should begin to take consolidation of the sector to a new level.

“There are too many banks,” Pagani told Bloomberg. “And in this sense, Monte dei Paschi could play a role. I think this could start this year.”

There’s clearly lots of room for consolidation in Italy, home to roughly 500 banks, many of which are small local or regional savings banks with tens or hundreds of millions of euros in assets. At the top end of the scale, Italy’s ten biggest banks control roughly 50% of the industry. The goal is to increase that to 70-75% to bring it more in line with the levels of banking concentration in other EU countries. In Spain, for example, the five biggest banks — Santander, BBVA, CaixaBank, Bankia and Sabadell — control 72% of the market.

The problem is that, while last year’s bail out of Monte dei Paschi di Siena may have restored a certain amount of investor confidence to Italy’s banking sector, many of the largest banking groups are still extremely fragile, with stubbornly high non-performing loan (NPL) ratios. Even Intesa Sanpaolo, which is widely regarded as Italy’s most stable large bank, had a bad-loan ratio of 13% at the end of September, compared to a European average of 4.5%.

As such, trying to find suitable merger partners that are not going to drag each other further down is not going to be an easy task. Intesa is still trying to digest tens of billions of assets from Banca Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca, the two mid-size collapsed banks it gobbled up at the government’s insistence in June last year. As for Unicredit, Italy’s only global systemically important bank (G-SIB), it’s barely back on its own two feet after successfully completing the biggest ever capital expansion in Italian history last year.

So, if the two biggest banks are most likely out of the equation for now, who could Pagani be thinking about? For the moment he says it’s too early to say.

But while Pagani keeps mum, Giovanni Razzoli, an analyst at Equita SIM, has identified five potential suitors — Monte dei Paschi di Siena (now majority owned by the State), Banco BPM, BPER Banca, Credito Valtellinese and Banca Carige — that could be merged into one mega-bank. He’s even given his masterplan a name, with suitably dark undertones: Project Overlord.

Three of the banks have one obvious thing in common: they have all been, or are in the process of being, rescued, either by taxpayers or shareholders, or a combination of both.

Despite being bailed out with €8.5 billion of taxpayer funds last year, in contravention of new EU rules on banking resolution, Monte dei Paschi is still far from out of the woods. In early February the bank reported total losses in 2017 of €3.5 billion, as a result of falling revenue, loan write-downs, and one-off charges. Since then its stock, which resumed trading on Oct. 25 after a 10-month hiatus, has tumbled over 15%. Now valued at €3.18, the shares are 51% below the €6.49 that Italian taxpayers paid during the latest rescue.

Then there’s mid-sized lender Carige, with assets of €26 billion. In December it completed a €500 million share issue that very nearly flopped. Together with a completed exchange of subordinated bonds into senior bonds and ongoing asset disposals, the capital increase is expected to raise about €1 billion of capital, according to rating agency Moody’s. The proceeds will largely be used to write down and then dispose of €1.9 billion of problem loans.

Credito Valtellinese (or Creval) is in a similar situation having reported a €332 million loss for 2017 in preparation for its own €700 million rights issue. Since then its shares have tumbled from €0.16 to €0.11 cents.

In other words, Operation Overload would involve joining at the hip three banks that are barely capable of standing on their own two feet, even with all the public and/or private support they’ve received, with two other banks — one of which (Banco BPM) is barely a year old after being spawned from the merger last year of two large cooperative banks, Banco Popolare and BPM.

For an indication of what could ensue one need only recall what happened to Spain’s very own frankenbank, Bankia, which was created in 2010 by melding together six failing regional savings banks with a larger and seemingly healthier lender, Caja Madrid. Less than a year after its public launch, in 2011, Bankia collapsed in such emphatic style that, to be reanimated, it needed the biggest ever public bailout in Spanish history.

One can only hope that Italy’s incoming policymakers and Europe’s central bankers have learnt enough from recent history to consign Project Overlord to the dustbin. But if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that policymakers, whether in government or central banking, rarely learn from history. By Don Quijones.

There’s a new plan to deal with the problems of Spanish banks, but there’s a problem with the plan. Read…  A New Cunning Plan to Allay Banking Jitters is Hatched in Spain

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