After rescuing banks, Italy moves to bail out savers

Milan (AFP) - Italy was working Friday to set up a solidarity fund to help small investors who lost money in the rescue last month of four regional banks, following the suicide of a man whose life savings were wiped out.

Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan told parliament's budget committee that the government was "preparing a directive for the creation of a fund", as police seized documents from one of the banks as part of a probe into the pensioner's death.

Under the measure, which will be introduced in an amendment to the 2016 budget, appeals would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis by market watchdog Consob.

"It's not possible to rule out that the four banks sold subordinated bonds to people who presented a risk profile incompatible with the nature of these bonds, but this is what should be verified with the analysis of each individual case," Padoan said.

The finance minister said the government believed efforts to compensate those who had lost their savings would be "compatible with EU rules on state aid", but added that "assessments are ongoing with the European Commission".

A spokesman for the European Commission said it "supports the intentions of the Italian government to allow savers to ask for compensation from banks for potential irregular sales of bonds," according to Italian media reports.

Italy's financial daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, had said earlier that the government was thinking of creating a 100-million-euro ($109 million) solidarity fund, with contributions from both the state and the banking sector.

- Inquiry into banking system -

The four banks -- Banca delle Marche, Banca Popolare dell'Etruria e del Lazio, Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara and Cassa di Risparmio della Provincia di Chieti -- had all been put under special administration over the past two years.

A 3.6-billion-euro ($3.83 billion) rescue plan was launched by the government last month using a newly-formed National Resolution Fund, which is fed by the country's healthy banks.

But there have still been heavy losses for some investors and the government has drawn fire for the suicide of a retired man who hung himself after he lost 110,000 euros which he had invested in bonds issued by Banca Etruria.

Police seized documents from the bank on Friday and prosecutors said they would be questioning bank officials about whether the man had known to what he was signing up.

Almost half of the 768 million in subordinated bonds swallowed up by the rescue was held by 10,500 retail savers, according to the finance ministry.

Under mounting pressure from consumer associations and political opponents, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said he supported a parliamentary decision to hold an inquiry into "what has happened" in the banking system over the past decade.

But he defended the rescue, saying that it had protected the savings of hundreds of thousands of current-account holders and saved 7,000 jobs.

The Bank of Italy's director general Salvatore Rossi said in an interview that the bank had called in the past for the sale of subordinated bonds to ordinary savers to be banned.

The problem, he told Corriere della Sera, is that Bank of Italy does not have the "authority" to intervene in the matter.