The days may be numbered for the world’s oldest bank

Last month, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the oldest bank in the world, got another accolade: Europe’s weakest lender. The bank did worse than any other in a test of its financial health by European regulators, the dark latest chapter in a long saga of unfortunate deals, financial shenanigans, criminal acts and even a mysterious death. The regulators’ stress test, which showed that a severe recession would wipe out the bank’s capital, forced the Italian government to face an unpleasant truth: Monte dei Paschi’s 5½-century race is coming to an end. Spurred on by Rome, UniCredit, one of Italy’s largest banks, said last month it was in talks to buy Monte dei Paschi on condition that the government keep all bad debts.

Monte dei Paschi, founded in 1472, will likely remain a brand in central Italian bank branches, and customers are unlikely to notice much of a difference, at least initially. But the bank will cease to be a stand-alone entity and a living reminder that Renaissance Italian merchants essentially invented modern banking. The bank’s operations will be managed from UniCredit’s headquarters in Milan rather than the fortress-like headquarters of Monte dei Paschi in the old quarter of Siena. The oldest bank title will likely pass to Berenberg Bank, founded in Hamburg, Germany, in 1590.

The bank’s troubles are an unfortunate distraction for Mario Draghi, Italy’s prime minister and former president of the European Central Bank, as he tries to push through reforms and end Italy’s status as a laggard perpetual economy of the euro zone.

The elimination of Monte dei Paschi, which was effectively nationalized after a government bailout, “would free up resources, time and political capital for more important issues,” said Lorenzo Codogno, former chief economist at Italy’s Treasury and now independent consultant. “There is strong political pressure to find a solution as soon as possible. “

Psychological blow

But for Siena and its surroundings, the troubles of Monte dei Paschi are a psychological blow as much as an economic one. Few banks are as involved in the wealth and identity of their communities as Monte dei Paschi was in its heyday. It remains Siena’s largest private employer, and the foundation that owned it has provided banking benefits to a wide variety of civic activities, including kindergartens, ambulance services, and even costumes that Rival clans wore in the processions leading up to the Palio, the bareback horse race normally takes place twice. every summer in the central square of Siena.

“Monte dei Paschi is part of the flesh and blood of the city,” said Maurizio Bianchini, local journalist, Palio historian and former communications manager at Monte dei Paschi. “From a human point of view, it is as if the bank were a branch of every Sienese family.

Maurizio Bianchini, former head of communications at Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena: “Monte dei Paschi is part of the flesh and blood of the city. Photography: The New York Times

Monte dei Paschi’s survival has been in doubt for years. His troubles started in 2008 after paying more than he could afford to acquire a rival and become Italy’s third-largest bank, after Intesa Sanpaolo and UniCredit. In 2013, as police investigated allegations that bank executives hid mounting losses from regulators and shareholders, David Rossi, communications manager for Monte dei Paschi, was found dead in an alley under his window. his office in apparent suicide. Rossi’s family members were convinced he was killed because he knew too much, but police never found conclusive evidence of foul play.

In 2019, more than a dozen executives from Monte dei Paschi, Deutsche Bank and Nomura were convicted of illegally using complex derivatives to cover up the Italian bank’s problems. They appealed. Most of the banks facing Monte dei Paschi’s problems would have been sold a long time ago, but for the people of Siena, the proposed deal with UniCredit would be like auctioning off part of their identity. The city will also suffer economic difficulties. The sale to UniCredit is likely to result in up to 5,000 job cuts, a third of total jobs, according to Italian reports. UniCredit declined to comment on any layoffs that may be expected.


“The city is furious,” said an 80-year-old man, who declined to give his name, as he chatted with friends on the steps of a Monte dei Paschi branch in central Siena. Handing over control to UniCredit in Milan, he said, “would be like losing a girl.”

Bank stress tests published in July by the European Central Bank revealed how vulnerable Monte dei Paschi remains despite multiple recapitalizations and recovery plans. In the event of a severe recession until 2023, the bank’s capital would be reduced to almost zero, according to the stress test. The bank would need “well above” 2.5 billion euros in new capital, Daniele Franco, Italy’s Minister of the Economy, told Parliament.

UniCredit revealed on July 29 that it was in exclusive talks to buy Monte dei Paschi, a day before regulators released the stress tests. Andrea Orcel, chief executive of UniCredit, told reporters and analysts on July 30 that the bank needs to take a deep look at Monte dei Paschi’s books before making a decision on whether or not to close the deal.

But he said Monte dei Paschi would strengthen UniCredit’s business in central Italy. “The time is right,” Orcel said.

Yet many people in Siena refuse to accept that Monte dei Paschi’s half-millennium of independence will soon be over. The potential sale to UniCredit has become an issue in the municipal and parliamentary elections, which will be held in October, and could play into the game of the League, a right-wing populist party that already supports the mayor of Siena, Luigi De Mossi.

The city of Siena in Italy Photography: The New York Times

The city of Siena in Italy Photography: The New York Times

De Mossi recently told reporters that the bank is “not a supermarket,” where UniCredit can only pick the assets it wants and let the government take care of the rest. The future of banking, he said, is a “social and political problem which concerns not only Siena, not only Italy, but Europe”.

But other leaders say it’s time for Siena to move on. “The ECB stress tests are a sort of final check that the bank is no longer capable of being on its own,” said Enrico Letta, a former Italian prime minister who, after a stint in academia, said returned to politics as a parliamentary candidate representing the provinces of Siena and Arezzo.

Other force

Letta argues that while the bank will remain a major employer, the city should invest in its other traditional strength, healthcare. British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline has a large research center in Siena developing vaccines against diseases prevalent in poorer countries, such as typhoid.

“Siena wanted to be the capital of finance,” said Letta. “Siena can be the capital of life sciences.

Enrico Letta, parliamentary candidate and former Italian Prime Minister.  He argues that the city should invest in its other traditional strength, healthcare.  Photography: The New York Times

Enrico Letta, parliamentary candidate and former Italian Prime Minister. He argues that the city should invest in its other traditional strength, healthcare. Photography: The New York Times

Letta called for the creation of a European district for the life sciences in the city, and said part of Italy’s share in the European Union’s recovery funds in the event of a pandemic should be used to support research coordinated by Toscana Life Sciences, a nonprofit organization in Siena that helps health care startups rise up. One of the organization’s research labs is developing an advanced monoclonal antibody treatment for the coronavirus which, if successful, would be less expensive than similar treatments and could be given by doctors without hospitalization of a patient.

“We have to give Siena a new mission,” said Letta. Some residents of Siena agree. Like Italy itself, Monte dei Paschi has shown that illustrious history is no guarantee of success in the modern world. “It was the prosperity of Siena,” said Marco Bruttini, 70, a retired graphic designer, sitting on a bench next to the bank’s headquarters one recent morning. “But even without this merger,” Bruttini said, “those days are long gone.” – New York Times Service

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