Commentary: Italy's Shareholders Finally Show Who's Boss

`You weigh shares, you don't count them." The notion that some shareholders are more equal than others amounts to blasphemy in a capitalist democracy. But it was the mantra of Enrico Cuccia, longtime head of Milanese merchant bank Mediobanca, and it let Cuccia and his bank hold sway over Northern Italy's wealthy economy for decades. Cuccia's elaborate cross-shareholding schemes, in which tiny stakes guaranteed absolute control of vast enterprises, gave industrial dynasties like the Agnellis and Pirellis virtually unlimited access to capital and deals--even when the rest of Italy was buffeted by political instability and inflation. Mediobanca was a fixed star in la Galassia, or "the Galaxy," as Northern Italy's vibrant but clannish economy is called.

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