EU Seeks Information on Italy Central-Bank Stake Revaluation

The European Commission asked Italy for clarification on legislation passed last year that changes the Bank of Italy’s capital structure, as it seeks assurances the new rules don’t amount to state aid to banks.

The commission, the European Union’s executive body, asked for more information on a new law “introducing changes to the capital of and shareholdings in the Bank of Italy, in order to assess whether it could contain state aid to certain banks,” Antoine Colombani, spokesman for EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia, said in a statement.

Italian Treasury spokesman Roberto Basso had confirmed the request by phone to Bloomberg News earlier today.

Former Prime Minister Enrico Letta won a Jan. 24 confidence vote in parliament on the legislation, originally passed by his government Nov. 30. The lower house gave final approval Jan. 29. after speaker Laura Boldrini quashed a filibuster by opposition lawmakers.

Commercial lenders have owned stock in the Bank of Italy since 1936, when the banking industry was fragmented and mostly held by the state. The ownership structure has been in question since the 1990s, when the state sold the regional lenders that eventually merged to form UniCredit SpA (UCG) and Intesa Sanpaolo SpA. (ISP)

Following cabinet approval and a non-binding opinion by the European Central Bank, Bank of Italy shareholders, including the country’s biggest lenders, changed the institute’s statutes at a Dec. 23 meeting to reflect the new legislation.

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After the revaluation of the stakes, the central bank’s top 15 shareholders would boost their core Tier 1 capital ratio by 0.3 percent, Bank of Italy Governor Ignazio Visco said earlier this month. All the other banks would get an average 0.4 percent increase, Visco told reporters Feb. 3.

Visco said the changes to the central bank’s capital rules were not a “gift” to Italian lenders and that the value of their stakes would now be more “in line with reality,” according to a statement that day.

Visco and former Finance Minister Fabrizio Saccomanni told lawmakers in hearings last month that the stake revaluation wouldn’t affect a planned euro-area review of banks’ asset quality or a “stress-test” scheduled for later this year. Still, Italian Banking Association Director General Giovanni Sabatini told reporters Dec. 12 that the new rules would mean that extra capital from the revaluation might help Italian lenders deal with any problems after the stress tests.

“This is simply a request for more information which of course does not prejudge in any way the substance of our assessment,” Colombani said today, referring to the commission’s letter to Italian authorities. The Italian Treasury is assessing the commission’s request, spokesman Basso said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lorenzo Totaro in Rome at ltotaro@bloomberg.net; Gaspard Sebag in Brussels at gsebag@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Craig Stirling at cstirling1@bloomberg.net

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