Italian bank chief's exit sparks concern over governance

26th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

The ouster of Alessandro Profumo from the top post at Unicredit this week has sparked concern about future governance at Italy's largest bank as other shake-ups rattle the European banking world.

Profumo's dramatic exit following a shareholder rebellion over Libya's growing stake in the bank rocked Italy's financial elite and weighed down Unicredit's share price at a time when the country's economy is being scrutinised by investors because of its high debt levels.

Profumo, who oversaw a major international expansion by the bank in central and eastern Europe, resigned late on Tuesday after losing a shareholder confidence vote during a four-hour board meeting.

In notes to investors, analysts from Italy's Mediobanca and UK financial services company Keefe, Bruyette & Woods (KBW) said uncertainty would hurt the stock in the short term.

"Uncertainty over the future group strategy, the risk of second-tier management changes ... outweigh our previously positive investment case" on Unicredit's stock, KBW analysts wrote explaining a downgrade of the stock.

The departure came in the same week that saw a boardroom shakeup at HSBC, Europe's largest bank.

HSBC said late Friday that Stuart Gulliver, head of its investment arm, would replace Michael Geoghegan as chief executive and chose finance director Douglas Flint as its new chairman, succeeding Stephen Green

The dramatic overhaul at the top of HSBC caps a tumultuous period for the bank since Green recently announced he was quitting, with neither of the two men widely expected to become the next chairman ending up in the job.

In Italy, Unicredit chairman Dieter Rampl, who will take up most of Profumo's duties in the short term, said the bank would find a replacement within the next few weeks and pledged continuity with Profumo's management.

Mediobanca said it regarded the departure as "disruptive" for the bank and contended that the absence of a successor already lined up showed "a lack of co-ordination between top management and core shareholders in managing such an important step."

Several names were being tossed around over the week, including Bank of America executive Andrea Orcel, who reportedly met with Rampl on Thursday, and Matteo Arpe, the former boss at Capitalia, one of the many banks bought by Unicredit during Profumo's reign.

Leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera called Profumo's ouster a "serious mistake," explaining that Profumo had to leave because he was not willing to bend to the rules of Italy's banking elite, traditionally close to politics.

After Profumo's resignation, Rampl acknowledged that shareholders faulted Profumo for not informing them that Libyan authorities had built up an almost 7.6 percent stake, making Tripoli the largest single shareholder in the bank.

But tensions were already simmering among shareholders because of the bank's poor earnings, with net profit in 2009 plunging 57.6 percent to 1.70 billion euros while this year it has continued to struggle.

"Libya was simply the straw that broke the camel's back," Umberto Bertele, president of the business school at Milan's Polytechnic, told AFP.

Following the 2008 financial crisis, complaints about Profumo's management began to multiply, notably by Italian bank foundations, non-profit institutions that are among the historical shareholders of Unicredit.

The foundations formed an alliance with Rampl and with the German shareholders who came into Unicredit's capital after its acquisition of HVB in 2005 and were troubled by Profumo's excessive autonomy in running the bank.

Unicredit is one of the biggest banks in Europe.

It has a market capitalisation of 37.3 billion euros and around 162,000 employees in 22 countries.

Shareholders include the foundations, German insurance giant Allianz and the Aabar Fund from Abu Dhabi, as well as Libya.

© 2010 AFP

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