March 18, 2020 / 2:07 PM / 19 days ago

UPDATE 2-Italy to defend 'strategic companies' from foreign takeovers

* Italy ready to use special vetting powers if necessary

* Rome considering new measures - deputy economy minister

* Security committee urges Rome to use state lender CDP (Adds details and background)

By Giuseppe Fonte

ROME, March 18 (Reuters) - Italy is preparing measures to defend companies considered strategically important from foreign takeovers, two government officials said on Wednesday.

Their remarks come at a time when buyers could take advantage of collapsing share prices due to market turbulence linked to the coronavirus outbreak in Italy.

“Rome will defend strategic companies,” deputy Economy Minister Antonio Misiani said in an interview with Radio 24, after the French government said on Tuesday it was prepared to nationalise big companies if necessary.

Deputy Industry Minister Stefano Buffagni said the government would not allow “Italy to become someone’s shopping territory”.

Existing legislation gives the government the right to veto stake building in strategic assets such as companies in the infrastructure, defence, energy and telecoms industries.

“We can already use the golden powers. We are considering how to strengthen those existing instruments”, Misiani said, without giving further details.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez also announced a plan this week to block foreign acquisitions.

Analysts say the worst coronavirus outbreak in Europe is expected to push Italy into its fourth recession in just 12 years and batter company balance sheets.

SECURITY COMMITTEE SEEKS TO PROTECT BANKS

Market watchdog Consob has introduced a ban on net short positions for all shares traded on the stock exchange.

Despite this, the Milan bourse lost a further 3% in early trade. It has plunged almost 40% in less than a month.

An influential Italian parliamentary security committee (COPASIR) urged the government to consider a contingency plan to prevent the hostile takeover of top banks and insurers, two members told Reuters.

Rome should strengthen its vetting powers to the whole banking sector as well as the health one, said COPASIR lawmaker Antonio Zennaro, from the co-ruling 5-Star Movement.

“Anti-takeover rules must also be introduced,” Zennaro told Reuters.

There are concerns in Italy that potential takeovers could distance country’s lenders from their home turf, with implications for the refinancing of Rome’s 2.4 trillion euro ($2.6 trillion) debt.

COPASIR deputy chairman Adolfo Urso, from the Brothers of Italy opposition party, said the committee had asked the government to authorize state lender Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP) to acquire stakes in strategic companies as a means of safeguarding them.

CDP already owns 25.76% of oil giant Eni, 71.64% of shipbuilder Fincantieri and 9.99% of former state phone monopoly Telecom Italia.

Recommendations from the COPASIR committee will be considered by the government but are not binding.

$1 = 0.9089 euros Reporting by Giuseppe Fonte, editing by Angus MacSwan and Mark Potter

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