Italy on Sale to Chinese Investors as Recession Bites

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Italy Goes on Sale to Chinese Investors as Recession Bites
The sun sets over Milan in this view from the Duomo di Milano, or Milan Cathedral, in Milan. More than 90 Chinese groups, excluding Hong Kong, had a stake in Italian firms at the end of 2013, up almost 20 percent, according to the Milan-based Italy-China Foundation, which promotes business among the two countries. Photographer: Gianluca Colla/Bloomberg

Clotilde Narzisi and Luca Soliman have run the Caffe Orefici, 200 feet from Milan’s iconic Duomo Cathedral, for 10 years. Forced to sell their business because of high taxes, they say their only hope now is to leave it in Chinese hands.

“They are the only ones who are buying,” said 43-year-old Narzisi during a break after the lunch-time rush of businessmen and shoppers in the heart of Italy’s financial capital. “We want to sell, taxes are too high; we work eight hours a day for the state and one hour for us.”

Caffe Orefici is among the 18,000 advertisements from businesses and individuals that have been published since February last year on Vendereaicinesi.it -- sell to the Chinese -- a website that helps Italians, stricken by the third recession in six years, attract bids for properties, products and services from Chinese suitors.

While Italian stores turn to the local Chinese community, the country’s largest companies are seeking investments directly from the Asian giant. Italy has been China’s biggest target in Europe after the U.K. this year, with cross-border acquisitions for $3.43 billion, according to Bloomberg available data.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who’s struggling to cut Europe’s second-biggest debt of more than 2 trillion euros ($2.53 trillion), urged Chinese investors in June during a Beijing visit to buy stakes in Italian companies, following his counterparts in Greece and Portugal who tapped Chinese money to raise revenue and exit bailout programs.

Mandarin Site

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will attend a summit of European and Asian leaders and other business events in Milan from Oct. 16, completing his week-long European visit. He wrote in a letter to Italy’s biggest financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore today that relations between China and Italy are entering a new phase which will give benefits to both countries.

The Caffe Orefici bar managers turned to Vendereaicinesi.it, whose ads are translated into mandarin and can also be published in other Chinese websites for a fee, after striking out with a local agent. Their ad was viewed 400 times in three weeks and they received four expressions of interest, said Narzisi. Ads range from an ice-cream parlor in Tuscany to a historic jeans shop in Cremona and a Ferrari 458 Italia.

Online Tool

“We realized that an online tool to link Italians and Chinese was missing,” said Simone Toppino, 35, who co-founded with his brother Alberto and Alessandro Zhou the website that has a mirror mandarin site Maimaiouzhou.com. They charge 42 euros to about 90 euros for their services. Most Chinese users of the website live in Italy. Bankruptcies have reached a record high this year, with more than 8,000 companies going bust in the first half in Italy, Cerved Group SpA data show.

While unemployment near a record of 12.7 percent and fiscal burden at an all-time high make it difficult for Italians to access credit, the 321,000 Chinese living in the country are better positioned as they can count on family networks rather than banks for financing, said Toppino, who’s from the northwestern town of Alba.

Renzi flew to China in June with a delegation of dozens of Italian companies to help broker deals. A few weeks later, Italy’s state lender announced the sale of a stake in energy grids holding company CDP Reti SpA to State Grid Corp. of China for 2.1 billion euros.

Cross-border Acquisitions

People’s Bank of China in July disclosed stakes in some of Italy’s biggest companies, Fiat SpA, Telecom Italia SpA and Assicurazioni Generali SpA, adding to investments in Eni SpA and Enel SpA in March for a total of 3.04 billion euros.

Chinese global cross-border acquisitions topped $54.3 billion this year, up 35 percent, Bloomberg available data show. Shanghai-based Fosun International Ltd. in January outbid a U.S. buyout firm for Portugal’s 80 stake in Caixa Geral de Depositos SA’s insurance unit for 1 billion euros. Hong Kong-based Cosco Pacific Ltd. is among bidders of a state-fund stake in Piraeus Port Authority while a Chinese venture is seeking a majority in Athens International Airport.

“We registered an increase in clients interested in investments in Italy last year and the trend has continued in 2014, with a growth of almost 50 percent,” said Sara Marchetta, resident partner of law firm Chiomenti in Beijing, which advised State Grid in the biggest deal in Europe for a Chinese firm this year.

Win-Win

Fashion, machinery and industrial equipment are target industries, she said. Retail group Shenzhen Marisfrolg Fashion Co. Ltd bought ready-to-wear brand Krizia in February.

“I believe Italy’s strong reputation for creativity and consumer brands can be combined with China’s enormous demand for quality goods to create” a win-win situation for both countries, Fred Hu, chairman of Beijing-based Primavera Capital Group and former China head of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said by e-mail. “We are naturally interested in investing in Italy across sectors such as consumer goods, manufacturing and financial services.”

More than 90 Chinese groups, excluding Hong Kong, had a stake in Italian firms at the end of 2013, up almost 20 percent, according to the Milan-based Italy-China Foundation, which promotes business among the two countries. In May, state lender Cassa Depositi e Prestiti SpA’s strategic fund sold a 40 percent stake in Ansaldo Energia SpA, formerly owned by state defense holding Finmeccanica SpA, to Shanghai Electric Group Co. A China CNR Corp.-led group made it to the short list of two bidders for Finmeccanica’s transport units.

In Rome, Pompi store, famous for its tiramisu dessert, is in talks to sell one historical shop in the San Giovanni area to the Chinese, according to la Repubblica. “Residents will have time and peace to learn Chinese,” the owners wrote in a controversial sign on the counter that riled the local Chinese community, according to the newspaper.

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