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  • APRIL 3, 2011, 5:34 P.M. ET

Italy Plans State Investment Fund

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703712504576240144005619666.html?mod=djemITPE_h

By CHRISTOPHER EMSDEN

CERNOBBIO, Italy—The Italian government is moving ahead with plans to set up a state investment fund to bolster Italy’s industrial fabric and stave off potential takeovers by foreign firms.

Speaking on the sidelines of a weekend conference held north of Milan, Italian Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti fondly recalled the country’s postwar IRI holding company, noting that Italian companies tend to be small and that the global economy increasingly revolves around large enterprises. «At this moment it would be preferable to have an IRI,» Mr. Tremonti said.

Mr. Tremonti also recalled how Chinese business and government leaders had told him that Italy «needs a big state company or a big multinational» along the lines of Germany’s Siemens AG to serve as an anchor for commercial and investment dialogue between China and Italy.

The move comes as Italian politicians and bankers are scrambling to fend off French firms that hold large stakes in Italian firms and are seeking to take a stronger hand in running them. On Thursday the Italian government approved a measure giving Mr. Tremonti power to set up a state investment fund.

Mr. Tremonti said Saturday he expected to involve Cassa Depositi e Prestiti SpA, in the ownership of his planned fund. He called CDP, in which the state owns a two-thirds stake and nonprofit banking foundations in which local politicians are heavily represented own the rest, as «already private in some measure.»

He also said the fund would be «identical» to France’s Fond Stratégique d’Investissement, a de facto sovereign wealth fund through which the government in Paris holds stakes in scores of companies, including France Telecom.

Mr. Tremonti’s moves are an explicit challenge to both France and the European Union in the wake of the stealth acquisition by French dairy company Lactalis of a 29% stake in Italy’s Parmalat.

The minister also said he’d propose a law granting Rome authority to protect certain strategic sectors from foreign control. He said the Italian legislation would be identical to a French law rolled out as part of an effort to deter Pepsico Inc. from buying French yoghurt-maker Danone SA a few years ago and might even be written in French for its presentation to European Internal Markets Commissioner Michel Barnier. Such a move would presumably require the European Commission to demand the French law be scrapped or allow the Italian law to stay in place.

The Italian state remains a key shareholder of companies such as Eni SpA and Enel Spa but it largely exited the role of corporate ownership when it dismantled IRI, or Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale, in 2002.

IRI was set up by Benito Mussolini in 1933 but in the postwar era grew into a sprawling empire with more than 1,000 companies and 560,000 employees. It ranked as the world’s largest industrial corporation outside the U.S. in terms of revenue but regularly ran up losses under politically-appointed managers.

Mr. Tremonti acknowledged that IRI, dismantled at the end of Italy’s massive privatization scheme in the 1990s, had flaws. But he lamented that Italy’s business elite had failed to take the opportunity to set up stable large companies in its lieu, often resorting to shareholding pyramid schemes allowing prominent families to control large enterprises with small actual capital outlays.

«The Italy of yore, revolving around IRI and Mediobanca—a powerful investment bank that oversaw strategic shareholding alliances—was a more functional market economy than today,» Mr. Tremonti said.

«If you take on debt to create something new, that’s the right thing,» Mr. Tremonti said in a bid to justify the role and prospects of replicating the IRI model. «If you take on debt to buy something that already exists, that’s not so good, and if you take on debt twice, that’s worse,» he added.

That remark was an allusion to Telecom Italia Spa, which when privatized was controlled by a handful of investors led by Fiat SpA’s Agnelli family. It was later bought in what was Europe’s largest leveraged buyout at the time, an operation that was repeated again several times at the level of holding companies. In the end the debt involved in such deals was transferred to the company itself, hindering the ability to invest in fiberoptic infrastructure to boost Italy’s economic growth. Telecom Italia’s largest shareholder is now Telefonica SA, although political pressure forced the Spanish company to ally with Italy’s largest financial institutions.

Italy’s big banks today are signaling they want to help keep Parmalat in Italian hands, although finding industrial partners of any size has so far proven impossible—sparking Tremonti’s idea of a public fund.

Some critics worry that creating such a fund, or spurring Cassa Depositi e Prestiti to take equity stakes in selected companies rather than channel the country’s postal savings into long-term loans as its current statute allows, would lead to a return of political meddling in the markets.

In the 1980s, a former government recruited Silvio Berlusconi—who is now Italy’s prime minister and one of its richest individuals—to muster a group of investors who managed to block the sale of an IRI-owned supermarket chain to a private buyer.

If a public investment vehicle is created, one of its first assignments may be to help Italy’s banks raise billions of euro in fresh equity to bolster their regulatory capital. The banks’ main shareholders—the nonprofit foundations that also have a stake in Cassa Depositi e Prestiti—face a challenge in subscribing to new shares as their main source of income is from bank dividends, which have collapsed in recent years as lenders faced capital stress.

Mr. Tremonti didn’t rule out such a role. Asked if the Cassa might buy new shares in Italy’s banks, he said; «We’ll see.»

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