UniCredit off to good start in CEE region-CEO

VIENNA, March 9 Fri Mar 9, 2012 6:00am EST

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VIENNA, March 9 (Reuters) - UniCredit is off to a good start this year in emerging Europe, where the Italian bank is the leading lender, Chief Executive Federico Ghizzoni said.

He said the group can retain its leading position in the region whithout having to care too much about what rivals do, and dismissed as "totally ungrounded" talk that the bank could divest key assets such as Bank Austria or Germany's HVB.

"For central and eastern Europe it has been a very good year. The start of this year is confirming we are on a good track," Ghizzoni told reporters late on Thursday in remarks for release on Friday.

UniCredit, Italy's biggest bank by assets, is seeking selective growth in emerging Europe and focusing on key markets Turkey, Russia, the Czech Republic and Poland. Ghizzoni left open the prospect for acquisitions there in the next three years.

"In the time horizon of our (strategic) plan - it is not tomorrow, but it is 2015 - I would not exclude the possibility of an acquisition in these countries," he said, although he added that no concrete projects were in the works now.

Asked about potential interest in Turkey's Denizbank , he said if talks with Qatari investors fell through and the bank comes on the market again "we will see what to do".

Ghizzoni gave few clues about who might replace German Dieter Rampl as chairman when his term expires in May.

The most important thing was finding a candidate with strong international experience and direct expertise in the financial sector, he said, adding nationality was secondary.

"I would be against a pure domestic Italian," he said, just as he would oppose someone of any nationality who lacked the proper qualifications. He was confident a search committee could make a recommendation by mid-April for shareholders to consider.

Ghizzoni said UniCredit had taken up "much less" in the ECB's latest offer of three-year funds than the bank had borrowed in a similar operation in December, when he said it got between 10 billion and 15 billion euros.

UniCredit, which has also been able to sell bonds in the market, will use its funding primarily for lending and not for buying Italian government debt, he said.

"We will not be using it to buy (government) bonds," he said. "I don't like this idea."

Ghizzoni said the bank's repurchase of hybrid debt instruments this year would help bolster its capital base that already features above-average strength thanks to a 7.5 billion euro rights issue it has pushed through.

"We will book this quarter 670 million euros gross profit coming from the buyback, which for me means another 10 basis points of capital," he said.

Ghizzoni said he would visit Libya - which has a 4 percent stake in the bank - and meet its prime minister on Monday. UniCredit has reopened a representation office in the country after the uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, but it was still deciding whether to re-activate its banking license, he said. (Reporting by Michael Shields)

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