Unipol hires Credit Suisse to study banking unit sale to BPER-sources

MILAN, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Italian financial group Unipol has hired Credit Suisse to study a possible sale of its Unipol Banca banking unit to rival BPER Banca, two sources familiar with the matter said.

Unipol has cleaned up Unipol Banca by spinning off its bad loans to prepare the unit for a sale. Analysts say such a move would allow Bologna-based Unipol to focus on its core insurance business.

Unipol controls Italy’s second-biggest insurer Unipol-SAI and owns a 15 percent stake in BPER, which is also based in the northern Emilia Romagna region. BPER and Unipol already have an insurance joint-venture in place.

The deal is expected to take place sometime next year, the sources said.

Italy’s fragmented banking sector is expected to be heading towards a new round of consolidation, with deals seen taking place in particular among second-tier lenders.

However, bankers say the political and market turmoil that followed the arrival of a populist government could delay potential deals.

Unipol Banca had net loans worth 6.9 billion at the end of September. With 71 billion euros in assets, BPER is Italy’s sixth-largest bank.

Unipol Chief Executive Carlo Cimbri has repeatedly said BPER was a potential bidder for Unipol Banca.

BPER has recently hired Citi as an adviser on the deal, a third source said, confirming press reports. (Reporting by Valentina Za and Andrea Mandala, editing by Silvia Aloisi)