By Stefano Bernabei and Valentina Za
ROME/MILAN (Reuters) – Italy is in talks with the European Commission over a plan to rid state-owned Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MI:) of around two thirds of its soured loans to pave the way for a sale of the bank, a source with direct knowledge of the situation said.
Hurt by a pile of problem debts and a derivatives scandal, Monte dei Paschi was for years at the forefront of Italy’s banking crisis until a bailout in 2017, which handed the state a 68% stake in the world’s oldest lender.
Even after shedding around 30 billion euros ($33 billion) in problem loans in recent years, Monte dei Paschi had 16 billion euros of soured debts, or 16% of total loans, at the end of June.
The source said that to become a merger candidate, the bank would need to lower that ratio to about 5%, a level that has become a benchmark for lenders seeking to clean up their balance sheets.
To reach that goal, the plan under discussion would see Monte dei Paschi spin off some 10 billion euros in impaired loans into a separate company that would then be merged with state-owned bad loan manager AMCO, the source said.
Monte dei Paschi and AMCO declined to comment. The EU Commission was not immediately available for comment.
Heavily exposed to Italy’s public debt mountain, the country’s banks are also contending with a stagnant economy and a fractious political system, which have increased their funding costs and dented their already weak profitability.
To win a green light for Monte dei Paschi’s 2017 bailout from European Union competition authorities, Italy had to agree to a tough restructuring plan for the bank and committed to exit its capital in 2021 at the latest.
The Treasury must inform Brussels of its proposed exit strategy by the end of this year.
Several people familiar with the matter have told Reuters Monte dei Paschi’s soured loan burden stands in the way of finding a buyer for the bank.
The bad loan spin-off plan currently under discussion would allow the bank to offload risky assets without incurring the losses it may face if it were to sell them on the market.
To overcome concerns the plan may breach EU rules on state aid, the Rome government is arguing that tougher rules on loan loss provisions introduced by the European Central Bank after the approval of Monte dei Paschi’s restructuring plan make it hard for the bank to stick to its commitments and for the Treasury to liquidate its stake, the source said.
AMCO, led by former UniCredit (MI:) executive Marina Natale, has started raising funding on international markets to face its growing commitments.
Fitch Ratings estimates that AMCO could be managing 30-35 billion euros in problem loans by mid-2020, from 20.6 billion at present, as it continues to take on soured debt from struggling lenders.
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