Monte dei Paschi is thought to be the world’s oldest surviving banking business. It was established in 1472; 20 years before Columbus discovered America, and remains the third largest bank in Italy. The bank had sought to raise €5 billion from private investors to ensure its liquidity and continued viability in the face of a balance sheet replete with loans which look unlikely to be repaid.
According to the European Central Bank, the figure needed to ensure the bank’s future is higher than previously estimated and stands at €8.8 billion.
Monte dei Paschi has asked the ECB for approval for a “precautionary recapitalisation” which would mandate the conversion of the bank’s “junior bonds” into shares in the bank. It has also approached the Italian state, which recently approved borrowing €20 billion to help the Italian banking sector, for support.
The precautionary recapitalisation move will be controversial because junior bonds are often held by small private, rather than institutional, investors – should the bank ultimately fail, their investments would be at risk. However, the move would allow the state to limit these losses under EU rules and to purchase the bank’s shares or bonds on the open market. The ECB still considers Monte dei Paschi to be solvent, so a full blown “rescue” ought to be avoided if the bank can access the state’s support fund (which would seem likely). However, trading in the bank’s shares has been suspended whilst this issue is clarified.
It remains to be seen if other Italian banks with “toxic” loans will need to turn to the state for aid. Should this be the case, the Italian government may find that it needs to increase the facility it has just set up to meet the demand. There is no talk at the moment about Italy needing to secure a loan from the Eurozone and IMF to support its banking sector which could reignite the European sovereign debt crisis. As things stand, this is a purely Italian financial problem – the cause of which is that banks lent money to customers that (in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis) do not seem to be in a position to repay the debt.