Still waiting for the tide to turn
The banking system is taking steps to shape up for European competition. But so far the changes are hardly sufficient in an industry plagued by overcapacity. Analysts argue that only mega-mergers will turn the tide. Philip Moore reports.
Recent events in Italy's banking industry - an alliance of two big banks, a sell-off of another and hints that staff cuts are in the wind - may appear revolutionary in a country where, traditionally, shareholder value has not been a prime consideration. But analysts argue that much greater rationalization is needed if the banks are to compete effectively in Europe.
The first ripple came in May when Banco Ambrosiano Veneto (Ambroveneto) and Cassa di Risparmio delle Provincie Lombarde (Cariplo) - Italy's largest savings bank - agreed a strategic alliance to establish the country's second largest banking group. At end-1996, the banks had combined assets of just over L250 billion ($148 billion). Moody's and other analysts responded positively to this symbolic message; the US ratings agency noted the alliance had "the potential for significant commercial and cost benefits in the longer term [and] represents an important step in the ongoing consolidation taking place in the Italian banking sector." Longer term, analysts agree the alliance represents the first step towards the privatization of Cariplo. It also represents a blow to the expansionary ambitions of Banca Commerciale Italiana (BCI), which had bid aggressively for a holding in Cariplo which it was "desperate to acquire", according to one Italian banker.