Italy's New Prime Minister Could Bring "La Dolce Vita" to Investors

By Martin Hutchinson
Contributing Editor

Italian elections have traditionally been confusing, with one weak center-left coalition government replacing another. But the election held on April 13-14 was unusual for Italy, as it produced a clear result. What's more, that result gave a majority to the center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi, a media billionaire, is pro-U.S. and strongly pro-capitalist. While the forces preventing free-market reform in Italy are extremely strong, he should at least be able to make some improvement in Italy's economic position, with consequent benefit to the local stock market. While sensible investors have in the past avoided Italy, with Berlusconi in office, it might be worth taking another look.

There's no doubt that Italy has some weaknesses. By European standards, it is fairly corrupt, ranking 41st on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, below the other major European countries (but above such investor magnets as China and India).

Italy has a budget deficit of 3% of Gross Domestic Product, with too much government spending at 50% of GDP, and far too much government debt at 105% of GDP. The country had relatively slow economic growth of 1.9% in 2007.

The home to Rome also has a declining population - not in itself a problem, but since its social security system is generous it creates difficulties in funding Italy's pension system. It has suffered badly in the past few years from expensive government and expensive labor costs, particularly as it is a member of the euro, which has almost doubled in value against the dollar since 2002.

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All this would make you think Italy was a basket case, except for one fact: it has enjoyed very considerable economic growth in the decades after World War II and again in the 1990s.  It's a wealthy country, nearly as wealthy as Britain, France and Germany. And it is famous for high-end design in the clothing and home furnishings industries. Some of Italy's medium-sized family-owned companies are the best run in the world.

From time to time, investment in the right Italian companies has made international investors a lot of money. With expectations low - the Milan 30 index trades only 30% above its level of five years ago, and on a price-earnings ratio of a mere 11 - and with Berlusconi likely improve the outlook for Italian business, this may well be such a time.

There are only a few Italian companies with full American Depositary Receipt (ADR) listings in the United States - most of firms choose to concentrate on the London market for their foreign capital - but at least a couple of these would appear very interesting investments.

A list of the companies easily investable by US individual investors is as follows:

ENI SPA (E): This firm is Italy's entry in the Big Oil stakes. Because of Italy's neutral foreign policy posture, it has the advantage of being able to operate in countries like Kazakhstan, Libya and Venezuela where U.S. companies often have difficulty. On a price-earnings ratio of only 8.4% and with a yield of 5.6%, it currently offers excellent value. Strong buy.

Gentium SPA (GENT): A small loss-making drug company, which has lost investors 67% of their money in the last year. Better pass.

Luxottica Group SPA (LUX): A manufacturer of sunglasses with worldwide operations, Luxottica is a quintessential way to buy into Italy's superlative design skills. On 14.7 times historic earnings, 13.1 times prospective earnings and with a dividend yield of 2.7%, the firm is also reasonably priced. The only caveat would be that a worldwide recession could badly hit sales of even lower-priced luxury goods. Still, we think it's a buy.

Natuzzi SPA (NTZ): A medium-sized leather furniture manufacturer, Natuzzi is currently booking losses and pays no dividend, so maybe not.

Telecom Italia SPA (TI): Italy's main fixed line and mobile integrated telephone company, with a P/E ratio of 11.3 and a historic dividend yield of 10%. However, as those ratings would suggest, earnings dropped 19% last year on price cuts and heavy competition and the dividend is now uncovered. There is also talk of a merger with Spain's Telefonica. Speculative.

iShares MSCI Italy Index (EWI): And finally, you can buy the Italian market as a whole through this exchange-traded fund (ETF), which has a reasonable market capitalization of $340 million, a price-earnings ratio of 11 and a juicy yield of 5.04%.  If you're excited by the possibility of economic improvement that the Berlusconi election victory offers, that is an attractive alternative. Buy.