Exclusive-Italy open to selling down MPS stake on market if terms, buyers are right – sources

By Giuseppe Fonte and Valentina Za

ROME (Reuters) -Italy’s Treasury is open to reducing its 64% stake in Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS) through one or more share sales on the market, three people briefed on the matter told Reuters.

Such an option, however, would only be considered if financially advantageous and as long as any significant new investor would manage the holding in line with the national interest, one of the sources said without elaborating.

Commitments taken with the European Union at the time of the bank’s bailout in 2017 bind Italy to eventually sell out of MPS and any significant co-shareholder in the bank could play a role in aiding or hindering the Treasury’s exit strategy.

No decision has been taken for now, the source added.

MPS declined to comment.

After rescuing MPS at a cost of 5.4 billion euros ($6 billion) for taxpayers back in 2017, Rome pumped another 1.6 billion into the Tuscan bank last November when it covered 64% of a 2.5 billion euro capital raise.

Under CEO Luigi Lovaglio, MPS pulled off the risky capital raise in rocky markets roughly a year after the collapse of merger talks between the Treasury and healthier rival bank UniCredit to take over MPS.

Two of the sources said the ministry had started considering an initial share placement earlier this year, holding meetings with some banks that could arrange the sale.

At the time, shares in MPS were trading well above the price of 2 euros each at which it sold new shares in the autumn.

However, the rally in late February prompted French shareholder AXA, MPS’ insurance partner, to sell the 8% stake it had acquired in the new share issue.

Refinitiv Eikon data show MPS shares hit a 52-week high at 2.6 euros each in early March.

They closed up 2.5% at 2.03 euros on Friday, not far from the price of the share sale whose proceeds MPS used to fund staff exits and replenish its capital reserves.

One or more market placements would not hinder the search for strategic partners, another of the sources said.

Banking regulators still see a merger with a stronger peer as the best option for MPS, a supervisory source told Reuters, but both UniCredit and smaller rival Banco BPM, which the Treasury has long identified as the most suitable merger candidates, have repeatedly denied any interest.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has repeatedly said that MPS’s privatisation should foster the creation of several large banking groups in the country.

($1 = 0.9081 euros)

(Reporting by Giuseppe Fonte in Rome and Valentina Za in Milan; Editing by Susan Fenton, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Gavin Jones)