Outlook: Italian job

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The Independent Online
SWISS, SPANISH, French and now Italian banks are doing it - so why not British banks too? The urge to merge is sweeping the European banking sector, but since Lloyds tied the knot with TSB, British banks have proved largely resilient to the process. Will they not be forced to join the party?

Some of them would dearly like to, but actually there is no reason why the latest outbreak of merger mania on the Continent should prompt any response over here. This heightened period of merger activity may have parochial significance, but internationally, it is of little relevance.

The Italian banking scene - and to a lesser extent its counterparts in France and Spain - is a highly fragmented one, with no bank having more than 8 per cent of the national market. Small in national terms, they are big in regional representation.

Each of the four parties involved in Italy's two proposed banking mergers have their own regional strongholds. As such, they are more akin to the coming together of a NatWest and Bank of Scotland, than a NatWest and Barclays.

Even after these mergers, there will be no single Italian bank which is bigger than Barclays or NatWest. So the idea that Continental banking mergers, which are in part a response to the free market reform being brought about by the introduction of the euro, could be a justification for consolidation in Britain too, doesn't really stack up.

In Britain, the Government remains as opposed to the idea of further banking consolidation as ever. Don Cruickshank has been instructed to conduct a wide-ranging investigation of banking on the Government's behalf, to establish whether the structure of the banking market short-changes the British economy, so the possibility of a public policy shift enabling British banks to seek consolidating mergers seems remote.

So far, we've yet to see any significant cross-border merger activity, and that presumably has to be the next stage. Even with the birth of the euro, however, the cultural and structural obstacles to such mergers remain profound. British banks have been asked on a number of occasions what they might be able to do with Credit Lyonnais; unsurprisingly they have taken the view that this is a risk too far. Any opportunity that is not, in effect, a rescue, would probably be closed to them.

None the less, someone will eventually take the plunge. Regrettably - or mercifully, depending on your point of view - the regulatory and management obstacles involved will probably mean that when such a transaction does take place, it won't involve a British bank.

Meanwhile, the question on everyone's lips - will Italy's new-found love of Anglo-Saxon takeovers lead to the final demise of Enrico Cuccia, at 93 still the acknowledged Don of Italian capitalism? Rumour has it that actually he's been dead for years. His influence was almost entirely absent from these mergers, so if time's winged chariot hasn't already carried him off, business realities seem to have done the job instead.

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