Will Beijing be Italy’s White Knight?

July 13, 2011

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

Let’s talk about Italy.

Italy is about art — Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti and more names. Italy is about luxury — Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo and more brands. Italy is also about food.

But, right now, Italy is about debt — huge national debt that is putting the entire eurozone or even the rest of the world into market panic. So, who’s going to rescue Italy?

Perhaps Chinese investors. They are focused on Italy these days because the deepening debt crisis there has become a negative external factor dragging down the benchmark Hang Seng Index for two straight trading sessions. At the beginning, people were not fully aware of the situation, as some thought Italy could not be Greece.

After all, Italy is the No.3 economy in the euro zone. How can Italy be in crisis? If Italy is in trouble, what about the rest of Europe? Yesterday, I moderated an online forum where a former Trade Commissioner for the Italian government spoke. Mr. Romeo Orlandi, an old China hand, who’s now teaching globalisation at the University of Bologna in Italy, said Italy was “too big to fail”.

The European Union may find it difficult to work with the current Italian government given political dramas related to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the highly complex domestic politics in Italy, but one likely scenario is that Italy should survive from the growing debt crisis in Europe if Beijing decides to step in to help.

The Chinese government is already suffering from the “cheap dollar”, given its more than $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, in which U.S. dollar assets play a major part. As such, a “cheap euro” may be the last thing Beijing wants to see.

Beijing has already pledged to help at least two European nations — Greece and Portugal — solve their debt problems by buying government bonds. Mr. Orlandi expects that Beijing could take a similar approach with Italy.

The link between Beijing and Rome strengthened further after Prada floated shares in Hong Kong. The luxury handbag maker has already established a strong customer base among China’s fast-growing middle-class. Today, Italian media broke the news that Berlusconi’s AC Milan soccer club may consider Hong Kong for its planned IPO.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao traveled to Italy early this year to show his support for Sino-Italy business cooperation. Recent media reports also indicated that China Development Bank, a policy bank turned commercial lender strongly backed by the Chinese government, may pour more money into business opportunities in Italy.

The truth is the deeper you get in, the more difficult it is to get out. But let’s try to think positive. When a crisis occurs, it certainly also means opportunity. To Beijing, it’s time to consider what role it should play in Italy’s growing debt crisis. To the rest of the world, if Beijing steps in, then what else shall we worry about?

Of course, analysts at Moody’s may disagree with me as they have a fight in words and reports with Beijing on how financially healthy the Communist nation is, but that’s another story. Economists have been forecasting that the Chinese economy could collapse for the last decade, but nothing has happened yet.

So let’s focus on Italy — for now.

George Chen is a Reuters editor and columnist based in Hong Kong.

Photo: A man walks in front of a Prada store in Hong Kong June 12, 2011 REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

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