Shares in Italian banks have slumped this year, amid fears that lenders need more capital to manage losses on bad loans. While some banks could do with raising capital—UniCredit for one has a thin cushion—there isn’t need for a wave of loan losses as implied by the drop in market values.
Instead, it is Italian savers’ worries about their exposure to the banking system that has fueled the selloff.
Take, for example, UBI Banca: its shares have fallen almost 25% this year, one of the worst performers in Italy or Europe.
More than 15% of UBI’s total loans are bad and it has limited provisions against these with just 39% covered. If it were forced to sell its bad loans at market prices today, it might have to lift provisions to 80%. The losses implied by that, adjusted for tax-relief, would be equivalent to one-quarter of its forecast 2015 year-end common equity tier 1 capital.
That sounds bad. But is it likely? The answer is no. First, like peers such as Banca Popolare dell’Emilia Romagna or Banca Popolare di Milano, UBI has plenty of real estate collateral against these loans. Its collateral was worth 116% of bad loans at the end of 2014: Cut the property values in half and, with provisions, its bad loans are still covered.
Also, like Intesa Sanpaolo, UBI’s common equity capital ratio is comfortably ahead of what it needs. It was 12.6% at the end of September against its current regulatory requirement of 9.25%. It has a healthy margin of error.
Regardless, neither UBI nor its peers are going to be forced to sell all their bad loans at market prices.
True, there is still talk of an Italian bad bank. That would have to buy assets using private funds at market prices, so as not to infringe state-aid rules. The government might offer some insurance to private investors, but that would also have to be at market rates.
But low market prices for bad loans reflect the length of the legal process required to compel payment, as much as the quality of the assets. For that reason, banks have resisted selling and will continue to do so.
Retail savers own about one-third of bank debt, Royal Bank of Scotland estimates. They are rightly—and hurriedly—spreading their savings more widely. They should have done so sooner.
Italian banks will have to pay more for their funding as a result. Consolidation is also going to take longer than hoped. Both are bad for profits.
But for UBI and many of its peers, this year’s share price falls are pricing in bad loan write-downs that simply aren’t needed. Italy’s problems just haven’t changed that much.