independent

Friday 18 April 2014

How the world's oldest bank lost appetite for Chianti and brisket

NESTLED in the hills of Tuscany, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world's oldest bank, once hosted shareholders with its own vintage Chianti and mounds of beef brisket.

At its last annual general meeting in October they got sandwiches and mineral water.

Chairman Alessandro Profumo and chief executive Fabrizio Viola have little time to savour Monte Paschi's priceless art collection and its vino di Toscana 'Rosso 1472', grown just outside its base in the city of Siena. Appointed this year, they're slashing costs to reverse a decade of missteps that brought the 540-year-old lender to its knees.

Lavished

Monte Paschi's Italian owner, a foundation by the same name, once lavished €2bn on art, science and culture in Siena, located 240km north of Rome, and helped expand its airport. Former chairman Giuseppe Mussari, who stepped down in April, spent €9bn in 2007 to acquire rival Banca Antonveneta, a price that exceeded Monte Paschi's own market value. A losing €27bn bet on Italy's sovereign bonds followed.

Mr Mussari is now head of the Italian Banking Association, representing the nation's 699 banks.

Shareholder Gianni Acciughi (60), who took early retirement from Monte Paschi in 2009, was scathing about the management style of the time. They were working on "slides and reports and not on reality", he says.

Mr Acciughi turned up at the shareholders' meeting in Siena last month with his 25,000 shares. At 20.3 cent apiece, they'd net him just over €5,000 today, an eighth of what they were worth in September 2008, the month Lehman Brothers pushed the global economy into financial crisis.

"We used to get Tuscan beef brisket and the local hand- made 'Pici' pasta on China plates, along with award-winning wines in fine crystal glasses," Acciughi said by telephone from his home in the city. "This year I had to go out to buy a slice of pizza because I only found crumbs of sandwiches."

Mr Profumo, speaking at the meeting, told shareholders the lunch symbolised the new diet the bank is on.

Mr Profumo and Mr Viola are cutting 4,600 of the bank's 31,170 staff by 2015 and closing 400 branches as part of a rescue plan.

They're now asking the Italian government to lend them €3.4bn, the second bailout in three years. The deal is currently under European antitrust regulator scrutiny.

"The financial assets, the inability to value the risks correctly, that was the biggest mistake," Mr Viola (54) said in an interview at Monte Paschi's headquarters. "We have to clean things up and turn the bank into an engine of renewal."

Monte Paschi's offices are based at the 12th-century Palazzo Salimbeni, a neo-gothic landmark it owns in Siena's historic centre. The palace is home to paintings and sculpture spanning five centuries of Tuscan art, including works by Il Sassetta, Pietro Lorenzetti and Beccafumi.

Monte Paschi's biggest shareholder is Fondazione Monte Paschi, a non-profit entity set up in 1995. Pressure on Monte Paschi's finances is forcing the Fondazione to break with traditions such as appointing managers from within the bank and its own directors to run operations.

Mr Profumo (55), hired in April when Mussari stepped down, was CEO of UniCredit for 13 years. Mr Viola, who had arrived at Monte Paschi three months earlier, previously ran two Italian cooperative banks in northern Italy focused on retail and corporate clients.

"The biggest challenge for the pair is to eradicate bad habits and change the bank's culture that is so deeply rooted," says Marco Elser, a partner at investment bank Advicorp in Rome.

"You can't ride two horses at the same time. Paschi should have made a choice between the past and the future, its hybrid behaviour just brought it to disaster."

To its critics, Monte Paschi's board caused the financial disaster that erupted when it tried to expand the bank beyond Siena.

History

Speaking of Monte Paschi's acquisition of Banca Antonveneta five years ago, Mr Mussari said at the time that he was "making history".

Monte Paschi's shares fell as much as 15pc that day and never recovered.

Monte Paschi's influence is felt throughout the city of Siena, home to 55,000 people.

Mr Viola now says the new management's commitment to cost-cutting and responsible banking means Monte Paschi's culture is changing, and with it the lender's financial future.

"People have started to understand this year that the bank needs to be managed differently, as a listed company, without outside influence," he said. "All decisions are now taken free of political influence and we're focused on the core business to improve the capital position, liquidity and profitability." (Bloomberg)

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