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Italian banking: First the big mess?

Propelled by a new breed of dynamic managers, Italy's banks are homing in on shareholder value. Consolidation is the battle cry, with three large mergers already announced. But choosing partners may prove the easy part. The real problems will start when the banks try to integrate. By James Rutter.

Youngish, gifted and Italian

Italian banking is seldom dull. Even during the years when Italy was regarded as having one of the most antiquated, fragmented and opaque banking systems in Europe, it could be relied on to provide a juicy scandal or two. The intrigue remains. But now Italy's banks have a new story to tell: consolidation.

"We are entering what is probably the most exciting decade for Italian banks ever," says Rosemary Erskine, Italian bank analyst at Paribas. "Not only are operating barriers coming down, but at long last, maybe too late, people are waking up to the fact that these banks have to be European, they have to get bigger."

Every day, the Italian media carry gossip of the latest merger prospect. Italian bank shares have been catapulted to unprecedented heights, making them one of the best-performing sectors in European equity markets. "The Italian market relies on consolidation froth and expectation," says Erskine.

Into the era of bold moves

As well as the actual tie-ups involving six of the country's leading banks - Cariplo and Ambroveneto, Credito Italiano and Unicredito, and Istituto Mobiliare Italiano (IMI) and Istituto Bancario San Paolo di Torino - deals involving all the major players in virtually every combination have been mooted.

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