ITALY

I understood Italy when I was asked by Paolo Fresco, the Vice Chairman of General Electric and Alberto Cerrutti, its M&A tycoon, to assist them in their successful acquisition of one of the largest companies of the country, Nuovo Pignone, with strong connections to Russia’s Gazprom. It was a saga. The executives of ENI, the public energy holding, quickly nicknamed me Monsieur Poirot, because of the complicated need to create a “maggioranza Italiana” of Italian banks. I learned Italian on the spot and this one-year transaction eventually happened. It was implying the communist mayor of Florence, the Cardinal Archbishop who celebrated Christmas mass at the factory. It is still the largest and most complex European acquisition of General Electric.

 

I also traveled through Italy to present the European SME financing to tens of financial institutions. It was an encounter with those vibrant parts of Italy that are not visible in Rome or Milan that my chief of staff, Elena Rotondi, opened to me.

 

It is a unique country, whose European influence is an impenetrable network of senior officials that completely covers the financial services regulators and the Central Bank. It ensures that no sanction will ever be taken against Italian financial institutions and Italy will never have to implement the indispensable reforms.

 

Italy is today the biggest threat to the stability of the Eurozone, and therefore represents a systemic risk for Europe and the world. What is extremely worrying, is that the various Italian governments, and especially Silvio Berlusconi, have denied the problem and refused to act on it. Today, with 130% debt to GDP and € 2.1 trillion of debt, Italy is potentially a bomb.

Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank President, has been the architect of several programs, some of which benefited first and foremost to Italy even though they had other official justifications. He is also part of the unique Goldman Sachs succession of Italian leaders, and was their Vice Chairman International. He is the informal capo gruppo of the societa of the Italian officials working for European Institutions. As the ECB President, he has managed to build a remarkable credibility. Should, however, the European situation know a serious crisis, his statement that the ECB will do whatever is necessary to protect the Euro could emerge as a gigantic bluff. Despite the evidence to the contrary, he continues to believe that quantitative easing will need to grow, while it submerges Europe of unnecessary liquidity.

Romano Prodi was a member of the International advisory board of General Electric. The professore is sharp, witty and…completely disorganized. Working with him and following his career led to contacts when he was Prime Minister of Italy and I invited him at the NYSE when he was President of the European Commission for a speech to the European chambers of commerce of the member states of the Eurozone in the United States. He has made an imprint on his country but could not transform it into a structured movement.

One of his successor, Mario Monti was also part of this superb academic school of Italy. But we should never forget how much damage Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi did and still does to his unmanageable country.

I love Italy as a tourist, but I am not always sure I can trust the Italians. I definitely share a lot of values and appreciation for their superb country that they certainly need to learn to better maintain. Rome has been then foundation not only of the Roman Empire, but of Europe as we know it. This unique legacy cannot be underestimated.