Billions in bad debts in Italian banking sector lead to fears of European economic crisis

View of the main facade of Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the oldest bank in the world, founded in 1472 as a mount of piety (ancient pawnshop).
View of the main facade of Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the oldest bank in the world, founded in 1472 as a mount of piety (ancient pawnshop).

Europe could be plunged into a new economic crisis later this week amid fears about the health of the Italian banking system.

On Friday, the European Banking Authority will release the results of comprehensive stress tests from 51 banks across Europe covering 70 per cent of the sector.

The tests will focus on the use of capital guidance to cover potential shortfalls and many fear disastrous results for Italian lenders including the world's oldest bank, Banca Monte Paschi which is also the country's third biggest lender.

The results have been the subject of discussion at a meeting of G20 Finance bosses in China over the weekend. Investors and political leaders fear that nearly $560 billion worth of bad debts held by Italian banks could trigger a new financial crisis in the eurozone already struggling with a Greek bailout and the unknown implications of the second biggest economy leaving after Brexit.

Italian banks are reported to have around 360 billion euros ($560 billion) in non-performing loans. That restricts economic growth as it reduces the amount banks are able to lend and can be disastrous if companies find their debts called in or access to funds cut off.

Last week, European Central Bank boss Mario Draghi said European banks were slightly better than they were before but still needed to address the problem of "weak profitability".

He said non-performing loans posed a "significant problem for the future ability and the capacity the banks have of lending".

Italian premier Matteo Renzi is suffering from a wave of discontentment as Italy struggles under a huge debt burden. Photo / AP
Italian premier Matteo Renzi is suffering from a wave of discontentment as Italy struggles under a huge debt burden. Photo / AP

The warning comes amid new rules in Europe designed to protect taxpayers from costly bailouts which means investors wear the burden of bailouts first.

Earlier this month the IMF warned Italy will not return to pre-crisis growth levels until the mid 2020s. At present, the country has the second highest debt level in Europe after Greece.

Despite fears, Italian finance minister Pier Carlo Padoan sought to diffuse the situation at the G20 meeting in China saying the country does not have a problem with its economy.

"All the countries should relax: there is no Italian banking problem," he told AFP.
"There is an economy which has been in recession for three years, there is accumulated non-performing loans, which have been dealt with."

He said the numbers that were "floating around" were "vastly exaggerated" and "a few cases" would be "adjusted". He also said there are "no tensions" between Italy and the European Commission on the issue.

Italy is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations but it is languishing under a huge debt burden. Photo / File
Italy is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations but it is languishing under a huge debt burden. Photo / File

"We are not on a bailout regimen, we are in a bail-in regimen, and all the instruments that are considered are within those rules," he said. "There is no need to bail out anybody."

EU economy chief Pierre Moscovici said any solution to Italy's banking woes had to fit with the terms of the common market. The messages from the Italian representatives had been "quite affirmative and reassuring", he added.

US officials said that Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Mr Padoan had discussed "recent developments in the European banking sector" in China.

In a statement, the US Treasury said that Mr Lew had "noted that while Europe's banking system is stronger as a whole due to reforms put in place in recent years, more work remains".

"Banks should continue to clean up their balance sheets and address legacy asset quality issues," it said.

- news.com.au

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