Giuseppe Orsi arrest highlights Italian politics' odd relationship with business

Finmeccanica chief arrested.

Giuseppe Orsi, the chairman of Italian giant defence and aerospace group Finmeccanica, was arrested on Tuesday on suspicion of corruption.

The investigation relates to the sale of 12 helicopters to the Indian government by AgustaWestland, the high tech helicopter unit of Finmeccanica back in 2010, at which time Orsi was at the division’s helm.

He now stands accused of bribing the Indian government to secure the sale. And he is not alone: the current managing director of AgustaWestland is under house arrest, an option not considered for Orsi, who judges said could potentially pervert the course of justice.

Unsurprisingly, Finmeccanica shares have tanked after initially being suspended, falling by more than 9 per cent to €4.236.

And this is merely the first layer of a complex story. According to the judge, bribery was “part of the firm’s philosophy” – hardly a compliment, but definitely less flattering considering the fact that the State is a 30 per cent shareholder in the business.

Finmeccanica has expressed solidarity with Mr Orsi, but Prime Minister Mario Monti declared, in his understated manner, that “there is a problem with respect to Finmeccanica governance that we will have to tackle”.

That’s certainly a good idea. But it is worth considering that it was Monti himself that appointed Mr Orsi as chairman at the end of 2011, following investigations into the practices of previous chairman Pier Francesco Guarguaglini and his wife, then head of another Finmeccanica subsidiary.

Orsi’s arrest comes just one day after the resignation of the Pope and it is possibly one of the few stories capable of pushing that news down to second place on Italian newspapers… Primarily because there is an election around the corner, and the German-born Vatican resident tends not to be active in local politics.

It’s election time, which has proven to be during the years intense and tiring time for the judiciary.

Investigations are still ongoing on Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the oldest bank in the world and the third largest in Italy by assets.

Not to be outdone, the head of State-owned energy company Eni Paolo Scaroni has received notice that he is under investigation for bribery.

And let’s not forget, that Italy’s technocrat saviour, and whose appointee is under arrest - Mario Monti - is running for office, as is the man most synonymous with Italian political intrigue - Silvio Berlusconi.

So, are we likely to see major changes and a clean up as a result of these elections? God knows! Or does he… It’s hard to tell now his spokesperson has thrown in the towel.

Giuseppe Orsi. Photograph: Getty Images

Sara Perria is the Assistant Editor for Banking and Payments, VRL Financial News

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.