Italian banks set to take up bulk of ECB longer-term funding

MILAN (Reuters) - Big Italian banks are expected to take up the bulk of longer-term cheap funds offered by the European Central Bank this week, as a recovery in the domestic economy encourages them to lend more, according to figures provided by banks and compiled by Reuters.

A man stands outside a building as people use Intesa Sanpaolo automated teller machines (ATMs) in Milan October 1, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

Data collected from 14 large Italian lenders showed they would request an overall 32 billion euros (23 billion pounds) at Thursday’s TLTRO tender. That compares with a total take-up of 40 billion euros estimated by analysts in a Reuters poll.

The top two banks alone, Intesa Sanpaolo ISP.MI and UniCredit CRDI.MI, are set to request up to 17 billion euros. "We believe that participation in the operation is likely to be driven by intentions to lend to the real economy and/or expectations for increased loan demand from corporates," Barclays analysts said in a report.

The ECB is offering banks the four-year loans at almost zero cost as one of its measures to add around 1 trillion euros to its balance sheet, in an effort to stave off deflation.

However, lenders took up just a modest amount of the loans in the first two offerings last year, a sign they lacked confidence in the euro zone economy. That added to pressure on the ECB to start buying government bonds, which it did this month.

Italian banks have taken a total of 49 billion euros out of 212 billion euros given out at the first two tenders.

The third tender, whose results will be announced on Thursday, is also expected to be small -- the most generous estimates by analysts are 50 billion to 60 billion euros -- making the expected take-up by Italian banks all the more significant.

The government expects the Italian economy to grow 0.6 percent this year, its first year of expansion after a three-year recession.

It has not had a single quarter of growth since the middle of 2011. Data from the ABI banking association showed this week that bank lending to families and businesses had decreased for the 33rd consecutive month in February.

Alberto Gallo, credit strategist at Royal Bank of Scotland, said Italy’s high take-up could be linked to carry trades, in which banks use cheap funds to buy government bonds to boost their profits.

“The issue for Italian banks continues to be structural lack of profitability,” Gallo said, adding that government bonds as a share of Italian lenders’ total assets were above 10 percent, the highest in the eurozone, and still growing.

“All these elements help improve short-term profitability, but will fade as sovereign yields decline and bonds mature.”

Lenders had until Wednesday morning to submit their requests to their respective central banks. There are three more TLTRO tenders scheduled this year.

Additional reporting by Stefano Bernabei, Elvira Pollina and Massimo Gaia; Editing by Larry King