Italy weighs fund to protect strategic firms

April 2, 2011 - 0:0

The Italian government is weighing whether and how to set up a financial vehicle that would allow the state to make targeted strategic investments to protect Italian companies from foreign predators. The move is an explicit response to the stealthy acquisition of a 29% stake in Parmalat SpA by its larger French dairy rival Groupe Lactalis, according to the prime minister's office. But it also reflects a growing consensus in Italian policy-making circles that, less than 20 years after the country underwent a major privatization campaign, the government needs to take a more active role in the financial architecture of the economy. A cabinet meeting in Rome on Thursday resolved to give Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti the green light to ""set up and activate"" funding and equity-based vehicles to take ""stakes in companies of national interest,"" according to a statement by the prime minister's office. Mr. Tremonti should set up vehicles ""analogous to those in other European countries,"" the statement added. France has such a vehicle in its Fond Strategique d'Investissement, which was set up in 2008 and has invested several billion euros in hundreds of French companies and was recently assigned a role to flank General Mills Inc in the U.S. company's acquisition of a majority stake in Yoplait. The French fund is 49% owned by the French state and 51% by Caisse des Depots et Consignations, which is fully owned by the French state. As Italy has its own well-endowed Cassa Depositi e Prestiti SpA, in which the Treasury has a controlling stake and Italian nonprofit banking foundations own the rest, a similar arrangement is being closely studied, according to people familiar with the matter. The Italian government's reassessment of its role in Italy Inc. comes as a host of Italian companies—in the luxury-goods, energy and financial-services sectors—have recently appeared particularly vulnerable to acquisitive French firms. In addition to the Lactalis-Parmalat affair, French luxury-goods giant LVMH recently announced it was taking over Rome jeweler Bulgari SpA. Italy's CdP is primarily set up to provide long-term financing, however, and so would be more likely to invest in a new sovereign wealth fund of sorts rather than directly in companies. Italy in the past had IRI, a postwar industrial reconstruction vehicle that over the decades ended up owning distressed companies ranging from car maker Alfa Romeo to a producer of traditional Christmas cakes and became one of the country's largest employers. With Italian banks under pressure from both Mr. Tremonti and Bank of Italy Governor Mario Draghi to raise capital well above the minimum requirements of the new international banking regulations, the idea of the state as shareholder will be closely scrutinized. ""We need a regulatory state, not a producer state,"" Fabrizio Saccomani, the No. 2 official at the Bank of Italy, admonished earlier this week. But he acknowledged that, given the abundant but highly fragmented and often passive nature of Italy's private capital, the state has in the past been a propelling force. ""There is a new approach in Italian economic policy,"" said Andrea Montanino, a senior official at the Economy Ministry. It's ""based on a more intensive use of public sponsorship or moral suasion rather than public money"" but above all represents a shift to equity from debt, he said. Mr. Montanino is one of the main architects of another state-backed investment vehicle, created last year. The so-called Italian Investment Fund is set up to act like a private equity fund but to invest almost always together with privately financed private-equity groups. So far it has invested in three small companies.

(Source: The WSJ)