Victor Massiah has grown weary of talk that the Italian banking system is so threadbare and stuffed with terrible loans that it threatens Europe with another financial crisis.
The mansion that serves as local headquarters for the bank he runs, UBI Banca, one of Italy's largest lenders, does not feel like a place on the verge of running out of money. An inlaid marble fireplace sits in a conference room beneath wooden beams worthy of a castle. A statue of the Greek goddess Athena stands triumphantly over a staircase.
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"As you can see," he says, sweeping a hand across the scene, "we're not necessarily bankrupt."
Among policy makers alert for signs of the next financial disaster, Italy's mountain of uncollectable bank debt is a subject discussed in tones ordinarily reserved for piles of plutonium. Its banks seem at once too big to fail and eminently capable of doing so, menacing the global economy.
For years, Italian lenders have muddled through, hoping time would cure their afflictions. But Italy's economy has been terminally weak, not growing at all over a recent 13-year stretch. Bad loans have festered. Good loans have deteriorated.
Italy's problems are Europe's problems. Nearly one-fifth of all loans in the Italian banking system are classified as troubled, a toll worth 360 billion euros, or nearly $400 billion, at the end of last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. That represents roughly 40 percent of all the bad loans within the countries sharing the euro.
In recent weeks, the world's focus has shifted to Germany's largest lender, Deutsche Bank, on fears that it could be forced to seek a rescue. But if Deutsche has become the crisis of the moment, Italy is the perpetual threat that could, at any moment, present the world with an unpleasant surprise potent enough to send legions of officials descending on Rome to try to contain the damage.
The Italian government has sought to spend more money to spur the economy. But European leaders, led by Germany, have enforced rules limiting budget deficits. And Italian banks have held tight to cash and are reluctant to lend, starving an already anemic economy of capital.
All of which leaves Italy and Europe, and to some extent the global economy, with a formidable conundrum. Europe may never regain economic vigor so long as Italy's banks are a slow-motion emergency. But Italy's banks cannot get healthy without growth. And Italy's economy can't grow without healthy banks.
Mr. Massiah has no patience for stories that cast banking as the source of danger. A few irresponsible cases aside, Italy's lenders are not the cause of trouble, he insisted. Rather, they are the victims of their times.
A recession that lasted seven years wiped out nearly a quarter of Italian industry. The unemployment rate sits above 11 percent. The population is aging, and too few women are working, limiting spending power. Too many Italian businesses are small operations that are especially vulnerable to globalization. Family-run craft and apparel makers have been destroyed by low-cost competition from China. Negative interest rates maintained by the European Central Bank to encourage lending have cut into bank profit margins.
"This is a bank-centric country, and there was a huge crisis," Mr. Massiah said. "When the tide goes out, you don't see everything nice in the sea."