[D]espite the bleak outlook, one European country has bucked the trend of multibillion-dollar writedowns and government bailouts: It's Italy, Europe's fourth-largest economy, whose banks have outperformed larger continental rivals over the past 18 months.
Don't attribute it to management foresight, sharper risk analysis tools, or fatter coverage ratios, though. Italian banks such as Intesa Sanpaolo (ISP.MI) and UniCredito Italiano (CRDI.MI) have outpaced European heavy hitters such as Barclays (BCS) and BNP Paribas (BNPP.PA) primarily due to their extremely conservative business models. The Italians steered clear of securitized assets and subprime loans, forgoing the windfall profits that boosted rivals' balance sheets in the salad days, but also avoiding the huge losses that later ensued.
Instead, Italian banks have remained squarely focused on traditional retail operations and corporate lending, relying on customer deposits to fund day-to-day operations. Even when the country's banks expanded to other countries, they moved mainly into nearby Eastern European markets that have outperformed Western European economies since the mid-1990s. "They don't make the same level of money as other European banks, but their business model certainly isn't broken," says Credit Suisse (CS) analyst Andrea Vercellone. "Italian banks didn't get into the securities business in a major way because frankly they just didn't understand it."
December 10, 2008
Those conservative Italian banks
Management foresight and sharper risk analysis tools, or fatter coverage ratios? No. How a lack of global ambition and substantial conservatism—namely what was previously seen as a major weaknesses—helped Italian banks outperform larger continental rivals: