Italy's UniCredit says it is among banks accused of running bond cartel

MILAN (Reuters) - Italy’s biggest lender UniCredit said it is among a group of banks accused of running a cartel in trading euro zone government bonds between 2007 and 2012, years when financial crises dragged down banks and several European countries.

FILE PHOTO: Unicredit bank logo is seen in the old city centre of Siena, Italy June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini/File Photo

UniCredit made the disclosure on Wednesday night at the request of Italy’s market watchdog, more than two months after the European Commission revealed that some traders at eight unnamed banks had exchanged commercially sensitive information and coordinated trading strategies in euro-denominated bonds.

UniCredit said the commission suspected some of its subsidiaries had violated anti-trust rules and that it might be hit by a cash fine, though it deemed this unlikely. EU rules allow for a fine of up to 10 percent of global turnover.

The bank’s shares were up 0.44 percent by 1217 GMT, having earlier fallen around 2 percent in morning trade.

Asked about the probe on the sidelines of the bank’s annual shareholder meeting in Milan on Thursday, Chief Executive Jean Pierre Mustier told reporters: “If you knew what I know, you’d use the title of a Shakespeare play, it’s ‘Much ado about nothing’.

He declined to comment about whether the bank would set aside cash to cover for a potential EU fine.

A source close to the matter said the investigation could be linked to transactions conducted by a junior bond trader who worked for a few months at the bank’s German unit. The source said the trader did not have access to the primary bond market, without giving further details.

UniCredit said in a statement: “On the basis of the current information, it is not possible to reliably estimate the amount of any potential fine.”. It has until April 29 to raise objections to the commission’s allegations.

Analysts at Jefferies said the maximum potential fine for the bank could be about 2 billion euros.

The commission revealed in January that the alleged bond cartel had been run by some traders mainly via online chatrooms, saying its charges did not imply that anti-competitive conduct was a general practice in the euro zone government bond sector.

European banks have already paid out billions of euros in fines, including for rigging interest rate benchmarks used to price home loans.

In a separate, earlier case, the commission charged Deutsche Bank, Credit Agricole, Credit Suisse and a fourth bank in December with being part of a bond cartel, also citing traders using chatrooms.

Writing by Mark Bendeich and Silvia Aloisi; Editing by David Holmes and David Evans