State loan, Autostrade case: no investment guarantee

Another front opens on Autostrade. The negotiation to grant the Sace guarantee to 80% of the 1.25 billion loan just requested by the concessionary company to meet the network investments announced in the industrial plan is proving more complicated than the loan.

Thursday evening the top management of the subsidiary of the Benetton family – through the parent company Atlantia – had a meeting at the Treasury with the chief of staff Luigi Carbone and the general manager of the department Alessandro Rivera to contractually construct the guarantee by binding it to a series of conditions. The talks have not yet led to the green light because some issues remain pending that make the outcome of the negotiation still indecipherable. The most delicate one concerns the future of the country’s largest highway operator.

Theme that overlaps with the guarantee of the state which should deliberate the Ministry of Finance with a specific implementing decree in order to allow the pool of banks coordinated by Unicredit to disburse the loan. The company struggles to access credit on the market given its merit just downgraded to trash by rating agencies. On the table is article 35 of the Milleproroghe which reduced the compensation for Autostrade’s shareholders for early termination of the concession (which expires in 2038). That article was converted into Parliament and became unsustainable for Autostrade’s top management and for the members of Atlantia to implement the 14.5 billion investments on the network promised by the CEO Roberto Tomasi to signal the discontinuity with the previous management that led to the collapse of the Morandi viaduct and a series of altered maintenance reports that ended up under the lens of the Genoa prosecutor’s office.

Atlantia has just disbursed a 900 million credit line to its subsidiary to finance working capital, ie ordinary activities including the payment of the salaries of its employees and its suppliers. It would need 1.25 billion from the banking system which awaits the release of the state guarantee to proceed with the disbursement of the loan, taking on only the risk for 20% of the amount not covered by the state umbrella.

At the same time, discussions are also underway with Cassa Depositi for a 1.3 billion line pre-approved in 2017 and now under negotiation given the completely changed scenario that leads the top management of the Cassa to a series of reflections – put in black and white in a letter to the top of Autostrade – on the opportunity to activate that line given the exposure of the same amount already in place with the motorway manager. Yesterday morning Atlantia held an extraordinary board of directors convened also for some statements – judged to be imprudent – of the five-year deputy minister of economic development, Stefano Buffagni, who on the state guarantee shot zero on Facebook: Ask lawful, respond courtesy. No thanks.

Affirmations conflicting with the spirit and the dictate of the decree rather based on assessments and criteria of a largely discretionary and subjective nature towards those who are making an important contribution to the country’s infrastructure development, through an investment plan of 14.5 billion, Atlantia replies that it reserves the right to mandate its lawyers to evaluate all necessary initiatives. The top management of the infrastructure holding – which is based in Italy, like its subsidiaries – have thus decided to give indication to its subsidiary Aspi to use the Atlantia loan of 900 million only to guarantee maintenance and investments for network security, therefore postponing the realization of other investments.

The investment stop – needed now with a country prostrated by the pandemic that would need an infrastructure shock to restart aggregate demand, it becomes – thus becomes a negotiating element on the concession. On the table are the 2.9 billion proposal by Autostrade between promised investments, 5% reduction in tariffs and 700 million in support of the Genoa system. Proposal still not accepted by the government because in the exchange logic there is article 35 which, if canceled, would allow a different assessment of the 50% share of Autostrade that Atlantia would put on the market available to long-term investors such as F2i or the same Cassa Depositi.