Commerce

Stock Characters and Stock Prices

September 04, 2011

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Silvio Berlusconi

On the blue Mediterranean I float, reading:

It’s only now that we realize that the gleaming wealth of the past years was shored up by a perverse conjunction of bank loans, dizzying rounds of postdated, overdrawn checks, [and] the extreme illusionism of an acrobatic Mandrake.

It refers to a family, not a country, and it is fiction, not fact—from a novel called With the Worst Intentions by Alessandro Piperno, a book which is well-intended but not very good since it is as filled with stock characters as the newspapers are filled with stock prices. So I might as well read the papers.

From Greek drama to Italian commedia dell’arte, they are very theatrical this summer. The conclusions are often foreordained, but surprise is not necessary to a good spectacle: In classical tragedy we already know that the protagonists will die at the end, in Hollywood movies that the lovers will kiss, and in the American Congress that the ceiling will be raised. In fact, there is no ceiling—it’s the sky.

And in Italy? With the man in charge being both puppet (with a face like a plastic mask) and puppet-master (pulling the strings), the show is sure to be extra-exciting.

“Done!” exulted Berlusconi on August 29th. “It was hard but we managed to keep our hands out of Italians’ coat pockets.”

“We are all bonded, sure, but we are not all bond traders.”

La Repubblica sets the scene in a style closer to political thrillers than newspaper reporting:

When the procession of blue cars left Villa San Martino after seven hours of something closer to a union negotiation than a summit, Berlusconi remained alone in his house with Alfano and Ghedini, and that’s when he breathed a sigh of relief. He felt like uncorking the champagne he had put on ice to celebrate this watershed event that, he says, “will smooth the road till 2013.”

But reprieve is short-lived in commedia dell’arte, a lively genre full of plot twists and comical misunderstandings:

What [Berlusconi] cannot know is that at the very same instant, far from here, the experts at the Ministry of Finance are already running the numbers on the maneuver just accomplished, turning it inside-out like a sock to discover that at least 4.2 billion euros were missing of the 45 [billion] they had been decreed to recover.

Until Berlusconi finds out, champagne! Though “a lot will depend on the reaction in Brussels and in the markets, today and in the coming days.”

If Italians want to be more appealing to stockbrokers and ratings agencies, The Economist has a few suggestions for them:

One way of improving matters would be to privatize some of the public universities…another option would be to get public universities to compete more vigorously.

Italy is not appealing because her growth rate is closer to that of St. Kitts or Botswana than to other developed nations, and if she doesn’t grow fast enough, it’s because her universities are public, her businesses family-run, her trades corporatized, and a large part of her economy informal.

Back in the 1990s it seemed to some that Italy was on the threshold of institutional transformation, [and that] the “clean hands” corruption trials would allow Italy to become a more normal democracy in which power alternates between two main parties providing strong government.

By “normal,” they mean more like America: privatized, competitive, and kept busy with the restless alternation between two parties. For an Italian, however, it is more normal to strut on the piazza in the evening to see who has the nicest sunglasses than to compete on the international stage and spend time changing for dinner rather than changing the system.

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