June 27, 2016 / 7:25 AM / 3 years ago

Italy prepares to shield its banks from Brexit fallout

ROME (Reuters) - Italy is preparing to protect its banks from a destabilising share sell-off following last week’s Brexit vote, sources told Reuters on Monday.

The Unicredit bank headquader is seen at the Porta Nuova district downtown Milan , Italy, March 10, 2016. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

Shares in Italy’s two biggest banks, UniCredit (CRDI.MI) and Intesa Sanpaolo (ISP.MI), fell by 8 percent and more than 10 percent respectively on Monday, in the wake of more than 20 percent falls on Friday after Britain voted to quit the EU.

Rome is concerned that Italian banks, which are saddled with 360 billion euros (£300.5 billion) of bad loans, a third of the euro zone’s total, risk attack by hedge funds betting that Brexit turmoil could tip them into full-blown crisis.

A banking source familiar with the government’s thinking said officials were preparing measures to counter any such speculative attack, including the use of a government guarantee.

A government source said Prime Minister Matteo Renzi would ask German Chancellor Angela Merkel to back more flexibility from the EU regarding Italy’s public spending and rules on state aid for banks at a meeting in Berlin on Monday.

That source said the measures Italy was considering included a state guarantee for bank bonds, which would be underwritten by state lender Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP) and the Treasury, but that no new moves were imminent.

Asked at a news conference after the meeting if the leaders had talked about banks and state aid rules, Renzi did not answer directly but said European and national institutions would work together to bring “calm and confidence” to citizens.

“Obviously there is no time to lose regarding the markets, but we are in a position to face up to any difficulty and do everything necessary, within the rules, to solve the problems that emerge,” Renzi said.

Even before Brexit shook global markets, raising fears of further disintegration of the EU, Italian bank shares had fallen sharply since the start of the year.

The banks have struggled to find buyers for their bad loans or to raise fresh share capital without heavy price discounts or state-backed bailouts.

The government wants to beef up or replicate an emergency fund dubbed “Atlante” that was created in April to buy bad loans and plug lenders’ capital shortfalls, the second source said.

Daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano said the government’s contingency plan involved taking stakes in ailing banks, to be financed by around 40 billion euros in new public debt, but the second, government source said there was no such plan.

The paper said Renzi’s administration was already in talks with the European Commission about possible support measures.

Two other papers, Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica, said Italy would seek to take advantage of possible exemptions to European state aid rules in case of “exceptional events” in order to bolster its banks if stocks continued to fall sharply.

Merkel had called the meeting with Renzi and French President Francois Hollande to discuss the impact of Britain’s vote.

Additional reporting by Stefano Bernabei, Giuseppe Fonte and Isla Binnie in Rome and Silvia Aloisi in Milan; Writing by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Alexander Smith and Kevin Liffey

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