finance

UniCredit board holds governance talks as future of CEO in question


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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Unicredit bank CEO Mustier poses during the shareholders meeting in Rome

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By Valentina Za, Giuseppe Fonte and Gianluca Semeraro

MILAN (Reuters) – UniCredit’s board was holding informal discussions over the Italian bank’s governance on Sunday, a person familiar with the matter said, amid doubts over whether its chief executive will stay.

Jean Pierre Mustier’s mandate comes up for renewal in the spring, and three people familiar with the matter said there was a growing rift with the board over strategy which called into question his future at the bank.

UniCredit declined to comment.

The tensions are focused on a potential bid for bailed-out Monte dei Paschi di Siena and a plan to split UniCredit’s domestic and foreign assets, the people said.

Il Sole 24 Ore reported that UniCredit’s board was set to discuss conditions set by Mustier to stay on at Italy’s only “global systemically important” bank for another three years.

But the first source said directors would only have an informal discussion before beginning the process of renewing the board next week.

UniCredit has already said it will put forward for the role of chairman Pier Carlo Padoan, who was Italy’s economy minister at the time of Monte dei Paschi’s rescue.

Seen at risk of leaving UniCredit after presiding over its turnaround, Mustier this year turned down the top job at HSBC.

After politics sank his efforts to seek a cross-border tie-up, Mustier has ruled out mergers and acquisitions even as consolidation sweeps Italy’s fragmented banking sector.

Although Intesa’s surprise takeover of rival UBI this year to create Italy’s no.1 bank has piled pressure on Mustier, sources say he is resisting government requests to take on ailing Monte dei Paschi, which the Treasury is working to re-privatise to meet commitments taken with Brussels.

Mustier has set strict conditions on any potential deal, the sources have said, and the Treasury is working on incentives including tax benefits that would provide a significant capital boost to any Monte dei Paschi buyer.

Mustier has worked to cut UniCredit’s exposure to debt-laden Italy, but his plan to spin off its foreign assets has met resistance and was put on hold this month.

The project to separate activities in Germany and Austria from UniCredit’s riskier domestic business has become less urgent due to European Central Bank bond buying, which dampens risk premiums across different countries, Mustier has said.

Since his arrival in mid-2016, he has rid UniCredit of most of its problem debts, while raising cash from investors and selling assets for more than 25 billion euros (22.54 billion pounds).

After rebuilding UniCredit’s capital, Mustier focused on returning cash to investors to lift the share price, a strategy frustrated by a regulatory ban on dividends imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

UniCredit will update its business plan in the second quarter, and is working with JPMorgan (NYSE:) and Goldman Sachs (NYSE:) on strategy.

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