* UniCredit sells risk on portfolio of project finance loans
* U.S. Mariner Investment Group interested in more such
* Foreign investors showing appetite for Italian assets
(Adds quotes of Marine Investment Group's managing director)
By Francesca Landini
MILAN, Jan 21 UniCredit has sold some
of the risk on a 910 million euro ($1.2 billion) portfolio of
Italian project finance loans, freeing up capital for new
lending with a transaction that could open the way to other
similar deals in Italy.
Italy's biggest bank by assets said on Tuesday it had sold
junior and mezzanine notes, backed by loans to Italian
companies, to two funds managed by Mariner Investment Group, a
U.S. hedge fund.
Growing appetite from foreign investors for debt that banks
want to offload, and the need for Italian banks to free up
capital to lend to local companies at a time when the economy is
starting to recover, could prompt more such transactions.
"We would be happy to look at taking more exposure in
Italy," Andrew Hohns, Managing Director at Mariner Investment
Group, told Reuters.
"We have discussions going on with a range of institutions,
some of them are in Italy, and we hope these will evolve in a
good way," he said, adding the fund would be pleased to do more
deals with UniCredit.
A source close to UniCredit said the bank could do similar
deals with Mariner Investment Group in the future.
"The transaction signals a strong interest of foreign
investors for Italian assets," a UniCredit spokesman said.
Neither party would disclose the value of the notes
UniCredit sold, which were backed by a 910 million euro
portfolio made up of loans to energy companies based in Italy.
A health check for euro zone banks and pressure from the
Bank of Italy have forced Italian banks to write down the value
of problematic loans in the past months, attracting foreign
buyers to some of these assets.
NEW INVESTMENT VEHICLE
The U.S. hedge fund said the UniCredit deal was the first
one of a new investment business, Mariner Infrastructure
Investment Management, it has just launched.
Through this vehicle, the hedge fund is channelling funds
from institutional investors to buy debt in infrastructure,
energy and transport sectors, Marine Investment Group said.
The U.S. fund has already raised around 450 million dollars
for this new investment initiative.
Banks that need to offload risk to comply with tighter rules
for regulatory capital are the targets for the new business, it
Italian banks cut lending to companies by 98 billion euros
between November 2011 and November 2013, according to data
published by the central bank this month, as lenders tried to
keep a lid on surging bad loans in the euro zone's third-largest
Both risky lending and non-performing loans are constraining
the ability of banks to give fresh credit to companies and the
Bank of Italy has urged lenders to start selling their bad debt
to free up capital.
In December UniCredit reached an agreement with Cerberus
European Investments LLC to sell a portfolio of non-performing
loans with a gross value of around 950 million euros.
(Additional reporting by Danilo Masoni and Valentina Za;
Editing by Pravin Char)