MILAN – Just months after the Italian infrastructure minister, Antonio Di Pietro, slammed the door shut on a Spanish company ready to buy the largest Italian toll-road company, he indicated on Monday that he would not take the same steps to block Telefónica’s possible acquisition of a large stake in Telecom Italia.
Pirelli, which controls Telecom Italia through a holding company, Olimpia, said last week that it had held talks with Telefónica and that the Spanish company might buy a significant stake in Olimpia. Di Pietro, with the backing of the government of the prime minister, Romano Prodi, last year succeeded in keeping Abertis Infraestructuras of Spain from buying Autostrade, which controls most of the toll roads in Italy.
“We are European and as such we don’t impose any limits on the ownership of the telephone company by Italians or foreigners,” Di Pietro said. “The issue is that a foreigner can’t just come to Italy and start buying up companies. One must consider industrial plans, proposed investments and the trustworthiness of the investors.”
While Di Pietro’s comments might open the door for Telefónica and other potential foreign investors looking to make acquisitions in Italy, it is likely to be years before foreigners have a free hand in buying up what are considered to be strategic Italian companies, according to financial experts.
“This is a fake opening up of the markets and the reason for it is simple: Telecom Italia has many strong competitors, Autostrade doesn’t,” said Stefano Masullo, general secretary of Assoconsulenza, a consulting firm.
“If I have to go from Milan to Rome I can take the train, the plane or drive on the A1,” Masullo said, referring to the north-south highway that connects Italy’s two largest cities. “There is only one A1, and that means that Autostrade still has a strategic value for the Italian government while Telecom Italia no longer does.”
Telecom Italia has faced competition since 1998 and has steadily lost market share in its fixed and mobile businesses while Autostrade has what many analysts consider overly generous government concessions to run 3,400 kilometers, or 2,125 miles, of toll roads.
[The Autostrade chairman, Gian Maria Gros-Pietro, said Monday that the company might reconsider its plan to merge with Abertis if new Italian highway concession rules are set within the next two months, Reuters reported from Milan.]
Prodi, a former president of the European Commission, has pushed through measures to liberalize the Italian economy and has promoted himself as a pro- European liberalizer. Yet he allowed Di Pietro to put up obstacles to the Abertis acquisition of Autostrade.
But there have been some recent success of foreigner companies buying in Italy. Two foreign banks have succeeded in the last two years in breaking down an elaborate system of defenses put in place by a former Bank of Italy governor.
When the Italian market is finally opened, it could bring a slew of foreign investments, though reaching accords with the government and trade unions will remain sticking points, according to Romano.
Fuente: International Herald Tribune