Unicredit's market value has quadrupled in the three years since its charismatic CEO Andrea Orcel, formerly Chairman of UBS's investment banking division and once considered for the Santander top job, took over.
Orcel had predicted a profit of EUR7.2 billion in 2023. Unicredit, which reported its annual results yesterday, did even better, finally achieving a profit of EUR8.6 billion. Italy's second-largest lender, behind Intesa, will return the entire amount to its shareholders via share buybacks and dividends.
Unlike BNP and Barclays, both of which have announced that they expect a difficult 2024, Unicredit believes it will be able to reproduce its 2023 performance over the next twelve months. The curious slowness of the Italian banking sector to pass on rate rises to its customers - a luxury that the much more competitive British market could never afford - partly explains this confidence.
The very high proportion of fixed-fee and commission-based products in Unicredit's portfolio is another, less obvious reason, as well as further gains to be made from the restructuring program still underway, and due for completion later this year.
In any case, it's a jackpot for Andrea Orcel, who has long been the darling of the European banking industry and the journalists who follow him. In three years under his leadership, Unicredit will have returned a total of EUR17.6 billion to its shareholders, more than the group's market capitalization when Orcel took the helm.
Unicredit seems to have abandoned its plans to consolidate the domestic market by acquiring BPM. However, it has entered Greece and strengthened its foothold in Romania with the acquisition of Alpha Bank. The Italian group also remains well established in Austria - where it is market leader - and in Central Europe.
The thorny issue of Russia remains to be resolved. At the end of the euro crisis, Unicredit had bet big on Vladimir Putin's country to restore its image. Now it's dragging its feet, which some activists are fervently criticizing. Initiated by Orcel, this gradual withdrawal should cost Unicredit at least EUR300 million by 2024.