* Northern League boss fears “German influence”
* Role of shareholding foundations crucial
By Silvia Aloisi
MILAN, Sept 22 (Reuters) - With the chief executive’s scalp under their belt, the UniCredit (CRDI.MI) foundation shareholders and their political allies appear to harbour wider ambitions to shake up Italy’s biggest bank. CEO Alessandro Profumo was forced to step down late on Tuesday after a marathon board meeting, with Chairman Dieter Rampl, former head of Germany’s second-biggest bank HVB, taking over in the interim.
Profumo’s exit was linked to a row over the increasing role of Libyan investors in the bank. The politically connected Italian banking foundations that are among UniCredit’s top shareholders feared the CEO was trying to marginalise them.
His departure is a significant victory for the foundations, and for the federalist Northern League party, which is a partner in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative government.
The League controls two of the regions in which the foundations are based.
“The renewed power of domestic shareholders, closely linked to local politics, may translate into higher political interference to the bank’s management,” said broker Cheuvreux in a research report.
Umberto Bossi, the League’s outspoken leader, has made no mystery of his party’s ambitions.
“Our supporters tell us, ‘Take the banks’, and that is what we will do,” he said in April.
For a graphic on UniCredit’s shareholder base, click on:
For a graphic on UniCredit’s performance, click on:
For a factbox on UniCredit, click on: [ID:nLDE68K0I6]
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UniCredit, click on: [ID:nLDE68K0SE]
For Breakingviews on Profumo, click on: [ID:nLDE68K0P7]
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On Wednesday, only hours after Profumo’s resignation, Bossi again weighed in on UniCredit’s governance, saying the foundations should defend themselves against growing German influence.
“I was afraid that Germany could get its hands on the bank,” Bossi told reporters in parliament.
“I hope the foundations don’t stand there with their hands in the pockets, but that they organise a defence,” he said.
The Northern League is likely to push for a greater focus on Italy, partly reversing Profumo’s drive to turn UniCredit into a pan-European lender through a string of acquisitions. That might put it at odds with the bank’s German shareholders.
Major foundations hold around 11 percent of UniCredit. The biggest single German shareholder in the bank is insurer Allianz (ALVG.DE), with a 2.04 percent stake.
Italian daily Corriere della Sera reported on Wednesday the League was “manoeuvring to have a friendly name” to replace Profumo.
A crucial balancing role between conflicting vested interests could be played by Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti, who is close to the League but is also concerned about stability at the country’s biggest bank.
“One era is truly over, and another one is beginning in which the foundations once again play a key role in the local set-up of the group,” Giovanni Puglisi, the president of the Banco di Sicilia foundation, told the daily. The foundations were hit by two capital increases during the financial crisis and had to go without dividends on 2008 results as Profumo sought to shore up the bank’s capital.
His plan to streamline Italian operations and cut jobs also worried foundations concerned about local employment and potential loss of influence.
With Berlusconi’s government facing the prospect of early elections after a rebellion within the ranks of his coalition, the Northern League will be particularly concerned about any move that could cost it voter support.
For a story on UniCredit’s strategies after Profumo click on [ID:nLDE68L11D] (Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Milan, Giuseppe Fonte in Rome; Editing by Will Waterman)