(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Leonardo Del Vecchio’s sudden emergence as the biggest shareholder of Mediobanca SpA, Italy’s best-known investment bank, is fueling speculation of an even bigger shakeup in the country’s financial industry. The lender’s promise to pursue cautious growth looks vulnerable to a push for deeper change.
Exactly what the eyewear billionaire has in mind for his 10% stake isn’t yet clear. Media reports suggest the 84-year-old Italian wants to lift his holding to as much as 20%, a huge undertaking — and not just financially. Considerable effort would be needed to obtain European Central Bank approval to own more than 10%. Del Vecchio must have grand ambitions.
What’s more, the tycoon is not the best of friends with Mediobanca’s chief executive officer Alberto Nagel. The two have been at odds since a proposed investment by Del Vecchio in a Milan hospital was reportedly blocked by Nagel.
Del Vecchio's recent comments appear critical of the Mediobanca boss. He hit a nerve by suggesting the bank might do better by expanding more aggressively in investment banking and relying less on income from its consumer finance business and its holding in the giant insurer Assicurazioni Generali SpA.
UniCredit SpA, Italy’s biggest bank, could previously call the shots at Mediobanca before selling its own holding in the bank last week. That position let it wield influence over Generali too. Now the question is what Del Vecchio wants to do with the stake. He has also acquired a holding in Generali directly.
While investors are right to fret about the peculiarities of Italian corporate governance, where minority shareholders can control the boardroom for their own interests, as a smart outsider Del Vecchio has spurred a useful debate. Mediobanca said on Tuesday that it wants to keep its 13% Generali stake until it finds an acquisition in wealth management that it needs to fund, and that he feels an obligation to keep it in Italian hands. But is it really a must have?
At 4 billion euros ($4.4 billion), the value of the holding is far larger than what the bank might need for a rainy day. Proceeds from a sale could accelerate investment in more promising businesses such as private banking to generate higher returns — or they could be given back to shareholders. Or Nagel could do a bit of both. Under his four-year growth plan, Mediobanca sees returns on allocated capital in wealth management of 25% compared to 11% from Generali. Maybe it does make sense to shift more capital to the former.
In fairness, that four-year strategy unveiled by Nagel this week should let the company build on its success in investment banking, consumer finance and wealth management. Mediobanca expects to bolster profitability to an 11% return on tangible equity from 10% and to boost investor payouts by 50% over the four years. Against a backdrop of Italian banks plagued by bad debt and an industry in Europe that’s mostly shrinking, Nagel deserves credit for dodging risky loans and focusing on the right businesses.
Overall, Nagel is counting on average revenue growth of 4% and doubling the contribution to profit from wealth management by growing organically. But he’s still relying on returns from Generali too: The stake contributes one-third of income.
It’s possible that Del Vecchio, who wields huge power at the eyewear giant EssilorLuxottica SA, will grow frustrated with the complications of investing in finance. Regulation has kept activist investors away from banking mostly. Even if he doesn’t stick around, Nagel may find his plans need to change.
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Elisa Martinuzzi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering finance. She is a former managing editor for European finance at Bloomberg News.
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