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BANKING

A diet plan for Italian banks

With a bleak economic outlook and business models that look outdated, a shake-up is necessary among Italian banks. They need to slim down and change focus in a drive for profitability.

Watching shoppers at the boutiques in Milan it can be easy to forget that Italy is a country in dire economic straits. But even if business can go on as usual for luxury-goods retailers, it can’t for the banks. The OECD projects that the Italian economy will shrink by 1.7% over the course of 2012, and an immediate recovery isn’t on the cards, with a further 0.3% of shrinkage projected for 2013. With Italian banks being mostly loan-oriented, with less activity in investment banking than their peers elsewhere in Europe, they are particularly vulnerable to economic downturns.

Talk to Italian bankers and they will position the situation in Italy as the mirror image of Spain. Spain is seen as an economy ruined by irresponsible banks, whereas the average Italian bank is portrayed as a reliable institution laid low by irresponsible sovereign borrowing. Intesa Sanpaolo’s €77 billion in exposure to Italian sovereign bonds is certainly doing it no favours.

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The locals are also keen to emphasize that the common stereotype of the feckless Italian is deeply unfair and that the nation is taking its lumps more demurely than some others might.