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The Banker Who Is No Longer Welcome in Restaurants
One midsize lender’s travails highlight Italy’s struggle to resuscitate its troubled banks
VICENZA, Italy—To mark the 150th anniversary of Banca Popolare di Vicenza SpA, Executive Chairman Gianni Zonin rented out a local convention center to host a high-profile conference that would be attended by Italy’s top finance executives.
It never happened. Mr. Zonin resigned in November, his bank dogged by bad loans, thin capital and questions about the legality of some business practices. The bank, which had planned to open its 1,000th branch this year, instead will close 150 and is likely to be swallowed up by a stronger competitor.
The afflictions of a midsize bank in this ancient northeastern Italian town are emblematic of the banking crisis that still plagues the eurozone’s third-largest economy — as well as other spots across the continent. In a move to clean up the sector, Italy struck a deal with the European Commission late Tuesday that will help its banks bundle up their bad loans and sell them off via new securities with government guarantees.
The agreement with the European Union’s executive arm is aimed at restoring the banking sector’s health and giving a boost to Italy’s economic recovery. But it will be a big job for a government that has been trying without much success to defuse the problem. One question is the affordability of the government guarantees, which according to the deal have to be priced at market rates.
Six years after the sovereign-debt crisis first gripped the eurozone, Italy’s banking system is choking. An index of Italian bank shares slumped nearly 25% at the start of this year, during a period when European bank stocks were down 17%, although it partly rebounded last week.
Italian banks are among the Continent’s least profitable, and their books are clogged with €276 billion ($299 billion) of bad loans, more than any other European country, according to the European Banking Authority. Many banks don’t make enough money to write off the poor loans, so they fester—prolonging the mess and making it harder for banks to make loans.
Italy’s struggles underscore the glacial pace of banking overhaul across Europe. Despite years of restructuring, bankers and investors still point to pockets of undercapitalized European banks, which could need to raise up to $35 billion of equity this year, according to Citigroup analysts. Deutsche Bank AG and Austria’s Raiffeisen Bank are among those that bankers and analysts suspect might have to raise capital. A Raiffeisen spokesman said the bank has no plans to do so. A Deutsche Bank spokesman declined to comment.
But the problems are most pronounced in Italy, which suffers from a highly fragmented and overextended banking system. And Banca Popolare di Vicenza is an object lesson in how those problems have played out. Prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation. Hundreds of workers are losing their jobs.
Mr. Zonin, a 78-year-old wine producer, has gone from respected leader to pariah, banned from a half-dozen restaurants and heckled at his church, residents say.
“If I see Mr. Zonin on the street, I take a side street,” said Luigi Ugone, a bank shareholder who was recently part of a protest against the bank in the center of Vicenza. “I don’t even want to see him.”
Through a lawyer, Mr. Zonin declined to comment. A Popolare di Vicenza spokeswoman declined to comment.
Like other Italian banks, Banca Popolare di Vicenza came through the financial crisis largely unscathed, touting its close ties to local businesses in the rich Veneto region.
Under Mr. Zonin, it continued to snap up local competitors. The bank was a key part of the local fabric, sponsoring the city’s soccer team and helping pay for a theater. A Vicenza taxi driver said he and his colleagues used to pick up flowers and other gifts from shops in the town center and bring them to Mr. Zonin’s house.
But as Italy’s economy slowed, the bank struggled to raise funds to pass a 2014 financial-health exam. As a mutual, it didn’t have publicly traded shares that it could sell to drum up cash. Instead, Popolare di Vicenza sold its unlisted shares to retail customers, sometimes as a condition for getting a loan, according to customers and their lawyers. The bank declined to comment.
At first, Popolare di Vicenza appeared to have scraped by the test. But the European Central Bank probed its numbers. The bank previously disclosed that it had issued €975 million of loans linked to the purchase of its shares. The regulator ordered it to deduct the amount raised from its capital base, arguing that those shares represented lower-quality capital. As a result, its capital buffers fell below the required minimum levels, it said.
Shareholders sued, claiming they were duped into buying the shares. Mr. Zonin started using a side entrance to access the bank’s headquarters to avoid angry locals. Police raided its offices, according to Popolare di Vicenza.
“This is the bank which worked most with local companies and households,” said Antonino Cappelleri, head of the Vicenza prosecutors’ office. “If shares are bound to lose two-thirds of their value, it will be a disaster for the local economy.”
Mr. Zonin stepped down as chairman in November. He and three other former executives are under investigation over alleged stock manipulation, obstructing regulators and extortion, according to a person familiar with the investigation. Mr. Zonin and the three former executives declined to comment.
The bank’s new management is rushing to convert Popolare di Vicenza into a limited company and then to sell €1.5 billion of equity and eventually find another bank to merge with.
Executives are touring northern Italy to convince shareholders to support the change, but they are encountering resistance from locals who fear the impact on the Vicenza economy.
“If it happens, we will lose all our money,” says Daniele Marangoni, an unemployed 47-year-old who says he acquired shares as a condition of getting a loan.
Locals are no longer delivering flowers to Mr. Zonin’s house.
At a recent Sunday mass, residents in the area said fellow churchgoers loudly heckled the deposed executive.
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