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Ghizzoni Prepares 'Serious' Plan for UniCredit

"I've no regrets." Federico Ghizzoni, chief executive of UniCredit, is summing up his first year in the top job at Italy's largest bank by assets.

Keith Brofsky | Photodisc | Getty Images

The laconic reply is typical of Mr Ghizzoni, a 30-year veteran of UniCredit who was thrust into the limelight when his predecessor, Alessandro Profumo, who had led UniCredit for 15 years, quit last September after a long-brewing bust-up with the board over strategy.

Despite his cautiously upbeat view, Mr Ghizzoni has not had the easiest start. Analysts are calling for the bank to raise capital, the value of its shares have halved and Italy has been drawn into the eurozone sovereign debt contagion.

Mr Ghizzoni, 55, who has a reputation among his peers as a steady pair of hands, admits it is not an easy time to be running an Italian bank. But he points out that "Italy makes up only 40 percent" of its business; the rest comes from another 22 countries in Europe - many of them faster-growing.

The banker knows this well having previously led UniCredit's operations across eastern Europe. "We are also very present in high-growth countries. Not many banks have that kind of proposal for investors," he argues.

To those fearing a liquidity crunch, he says UniCredit has 100 per cent of its funding for Italy - about 32 billion euros ($43.5 billion) - in place at least for this year. On a group basis, the bank has covered about 95 percent of its funding needs until the end of 2011.

Mr Ghizzoni downplays growing concerns among investors that Italian banks are feeling the strain in the overnight interbank market, denying that the situation is comparable with 2008. However, he admits that "finding maturities over one month is very difficult".

As with other Italian bank chiefs, Mr Ghizzoni believes repeated revisions by the Italian government of a 45.5 billion euro austerity package "have taken too long and increased tension in the markets". Nonetheless, he says nervousness has not seeped into retail branches.

"We don't see a single country where deposits are declining," he says. "Surprisingly maybe, even in Italy, we do not see customers showing signs of nervousness. The signs are very encouraging."

Before the end of the year, Mr Ghizzoni will have the added challenge of presenting his first strategic plan for the group. He has come under scrutiny for having failed to present one before now.

"The markets want a plan but it has to be serious and credible. It takes some time to do that," he says.

Mr Ghizzoni says UniCredit "will continue to be a commercial bank because this is what we do better. We will not become Deutsche Bank. Inside the concept of a commercial bank I can put investment banking but it must entirely support the corporate business". He also rules out acquiring any more banks in Italy.

The plan's other focus will be capital, a subject of great interest for investors. UniCredit has a core tier one ratio of 9.12 percent. "We have an ambition to be a strong bank in terms of capital ratio," Mr Ghizzoni says.

He says he can consider a rights issue, lowering the bank's risk-weighted assets and asset sales.

"The possibility for us to increase capital one way or another is there and it is achievable," he says.

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