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* Italy's top two banks to pool some restructured loans
* Banks clean up balance sheet ahead of EU stress tests
* Special vehicle could hold 2 bln euros of loans - source
By Francesca Landini
MILAN, April 22 (Reuters) - Italy's top two banks UniCredit and Intesa Sanpaolo have signed a deal with U.S. private equity firm KKR to pool some of their problematic loans, as the country's lenders seek new ways to grapple with soured debts.
The two banks plan to set up a special vehicle to manage some restructured loans they are both owed by the same struggling businesses, hoping that combining the troubled debts along with outside expertise and capital could either make those debts more recoverable or easier to sell to third parties.
A source close to the matter said each lender would put 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) worth of loans into the vehicle, into which KKR would invest an undisclosed amount. Turnaround specialist Alvarez & Marsal is also part of the memorandum of understanding, whose details are still being worked out.
Bad loans have become the number one problem for Italian lenders after the country's longest recession since World War Two, which is just showing signs of ending. So-called "sofferenze", or the non-performing loans least likely to ever be repaid, totalled a record 162 billion euros in February, according to banking association ABI.
Writedowns on bad loans and goodwill resulted in UniCredit booking a record 14 billion euros loss last year, while Intesa posted a loss of 4.55 billion, as Italian lenders aggressively cleaned up their balance sheet in the run-up to a regulatory "health check" of the balance sheets of banks in the euro zone.
The preliminary deal between UniCredit, Intesa, KKR and Alvarez is a rare example of European banks joining forces with private equity funds eager to buy assets from capital-starved lenders and benefit from a recovery in Europe's weaker economies.
One source said UniCredit and Intesa had no intention for the time being of getting the loans off their balance sheets, as they were confident they could get them repaid. However, pooling the problematic loans should make it easier to sell them if necessary.
"The aim is to have the vehicle ready after the summer," the source said. A second source said that if the project proved successful, it could be extended to other Italian lenders.
The partnership was still being discussed and more details would be negotiated as the deal progressed, the banks said in a statement.
UniCredit, Alvarez & Marsal, KKR, Intesa Sanpaolo declined to comment on financial details of the deal.
UniCredit had around 6 billion euros in restructured loans - debts that have already been renegotiated - at the end of 2013, while Intesa had 2.3 billion. ($1 = 0.7244 Euros) (Additional reporting by Massimo Gaia in Milan and Steve Slater in London; Editing by David Holmes)