It's Politics as Usual in Italy's State-Led Firms


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The anti-politics Five Star Movement may be part of Italy’s ruling coalition, but recent nominations to the boards of Italy’s state-backed companies look as pro-politics as ever.

Oil major Eni SpA, utility Enel SpA and defense group Leonardo SpA are among those that get a boardroom review every three years. The quixotic hope is that appointments are made via a clear process and at arm’s length from politics. This time around, unfortunately, one gets the impression of low-level horse trading.

Nominations seem to have been crudely carved up between the two sides of the ruling coalition, with the Democratic Party choosing the chief executives and Five Star nominating the chairmen. This turns good governance into a political balancing act.

The CEOs have mainly been reconfirmed in their roles. Fair enough. Ditching well-regarded executives in a crisis risks creating instability when it can least be afforded. All the same, the Democratic Party could be seen as merely ratifying the candidates it appointed or confirmed last time around.

At the chairmen level, new faces abound. Assuming these are Five Star placements, it’s hard to believe there’s no agenda in forcing change. Eni receives a commercial law professor, who is also on the board of the publisher of newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano. The paper has recently been critical of CEO Claudio Descalzi, who is the subject of litigation relating to corruption allegations. 

Meanwhile, Enel gets a banking regulation lawyer, who advised the bailed-out Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA. Over at defense group Leonardo SpA, the new chairman is, sensibly enough, the head of Italy’s foreign intelligence services. But a different board nominee has created controversy over reported ties to foreign affairs minister Luigi di Maio.

The acid test is what independent shareholders will make of all this. The Eni appointment sends a message to Descalzi that governance must be taken seriously and that he should not relax even if the litigation against him (which is now concluding) fails. The snag is that the oil industry is facing its biggest operational and strategic challenge in decades, with Brent crude at a lowly $21 per barrel and clean energy an investment imperative. If a crisis of this magnitude isn’t the time to pair Descalzi with an industry veteran, then when is?

Over at Enel, outside shareholders will have questions about the strategic implications of installing a new chairman right now. Enel has been under pressure to combine its fiber broadband unit with that of Telecom Italia SpA, to help provide universal internet access — a central Five Star goal. Thus far, CEO Francesco Starace has been cautious about agreeing to a deal. The logic and terms of such a transaction would be a concern to Enel’s non-state investors who own the majority of the group.

Of course, the chairman role at Italian state-owned companies is really more administrative than in, say, a U.K. company where the occupant can fire the CEO. At all three of these firms, CEO and chairman alike answer to the state. The government can phone up Starace and dictate aims any time. Besides, finding the perfect chairman or CEO is tough anywhere. The holy grail is someone who has relevant experience, strategic vision and can strengthen the diversity of the board. They don’t exactly grow on trees.

But depoliticizing these appointments has to start somewhere. Pandemic bailouts will see more firms taking on the state as a shareholder. If supposedly anti-politics Italy is anything to go by, those holdings will be kept awkwardly close.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Chris Hughes is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals. He previously worked for Reuters Breakingviews, as well as the Financial Times and the Independent newspaper.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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