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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Most bad loans held by Italian banks do not need to be sold immediately, the governor of the Bank of Italy said on Tuesday, in a bid to quell pressure on banks saddled with soured credit.
In absolute terms, Italy is the EU country with the highest level of non-performing loans (NPLs) on bank balance sheets, data from the European Banking Authority (EBA) show, a burden that reduces their ability to lend to companies and households.
"The majority of bad loans are held by banks whose financial position does not require to sell them immediately," Ignazio Visco told European Union lawmakers at a hearing in the economic affairs committee of the EU parliament.
His remarks came after Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan said last week that banks should be given a "reasonable" time to sell bad loans.
The European Central Bank, which supervises euro zone banks through its Single Supervisory Mechanism, included offloading NPLs in its priorities for this year. It urged ailing banks to submit "ambitious and realistic" plans to deal with them.
Visco said the Italian government had set aside enough funds to deal with capital shortfalls that may emerge in the country's most troubled banks as a result of the offloading of their NPLs.
He said that the sale of bad loans by the ailing banks at market prices far below their book value would create a total capital shortfall of about 10 billion euros ($10.6 billion), far less than the 20 billion-euro fund set up by the Italian government at the end of last year to support troubled banks.
Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena BMPS.MI, Italy's fourth- largest lender, holds the largest proportion of bad loans compared with its capital. Only a few other, smaller banks are also affected by the problem, Visco said.
Among those are two smaller banks from the Veneto region, Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca, which have called for the use of an exception in EU rules on banking rescues that would reduce losses for their creditors in case of state aid.
EU bail-in rules require heavy losses for bank creditors, including large depositors, before public money can be used. They were introduced to end taxpayer-funded bank bailouts which were frequent during the 2008-09 global financial crisis.
Visco said he was "quite confident" that an agreement with EU regulators can be reached on a plan to plug the capital shortfall of the two lenders with limited losses for creditors. Monte Paschi is negotiating with the EU a similar state support.
Visco's remarks on the Veneto banks echoed last week's comments by Padoan and statements from EU regulators that a solution for the two banks can be found in coming weeks.
He added that, even with the EU exception granted, subordinated creditors of the two small lenders may need to contribute to the public rescue with about 1 billion euros.
Public support for Italian banks with high levels of NPLs should be done at national level and without EU funds, Visco said.
He discarded plans for an EU-funded bad bank to absorb soured loans put forward by the EBA. The plan was rejected last week by EU finance ministers.
Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; Editing by Alissa de Carbonnel, Larry King