From afar, it seems like the wheels of European policy may be moving towards some kind of near-term fix for either Italy’s banks—or, more likely, for the specific problems of Monte dei Paschi di Siena.
The risk here is obvious. The intersection of Italian politics and European rules is pushing for the most narrow of solutions, one that will not recapitalize the broader Italian banking system. At least not quickly.
The recapitalization need even under pessimistic assumptions is actually fairly modest, as such things go. Less than Spain spent on the two rounds of recapitalization that were required to solve Spain’s banking crisis. Maybe less than the €30 billion Germany injected into Commerzbank and a few others in 2009, or the massive “bad” bank it set up for Hypo Real Estate (Hypo Real Estate was not retail funded, and even now, it seems like it has some performing subordinated debt—who knew). Probably less, relative to the size of Italy’s economy, than the €22 billion that the Dutch put into ABN-Amro.
But Italy’s government clearly doesn’t want to bail-in the heavily retail holders of Italian subordinated debt. Monte alone has about €5 billion in subordinated debt, and over 60 percent of that seems to be held by retail investors. A smaller subordinated debt bail-in late last year was politically controversial.
And Europe wants Italy to respect the banking and competition rules, which have been interpreted to require some form of subordinated debt bail-in. There are ways around the ”banking union” Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive (BRRD) bail-in requirement (8 percent of liabilities, a sum that implies a substantial write down of the subordinated debt). Europe’s rules already include an exemption for a precautionary recapitalization to address difficulties identified in a stress test. Getting around the state aid requirements seems harder, though perhaps not impossible if some of the flexibility used in the global financial crisis remains.*
The easiest way to protect the retail investors in the subordinated debt and to avoid violating any European rules, obviously, is for the banks to continue to carry the bad loans on their books at an inflated mark. There is a reason why nothing much has been done.
The current stress tests are rather narrow. They only will cover a subset of the Italian banks now supervised by the ECB. On their own, they will not force a broader solution.