Italy's Monti to lay out reform plans ahead of vote

ROME Wed Nov 16, 2011 6:15pm EST

1 of 4. Newly appointed Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti (L) shakes hand with his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi at Chigi Palace in Rome November 16, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Tony Gentile

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ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Mario Monti is expected to outline austerity measures aimed at restoring confidence in Italy's strained public finances on Thursday when he goes before the Senate to seek a vote of confidence in his new government.

The former European Commissioner, who took office on Wednesday, will present his program in the Senate at around 1200 GMT before a confidence vote in the evening. He will seek a separate vote of confidence in the lower house on Friday.

With Italy at the heart of the euro zone debt crisis, the measures he announces are unlikely to be enough on their own to rebuild shattered market confidence.

But they will be vital to restoring credibility with international partners who had long lost patience with the repeatedly unfulfilled promises of Monti's flamboyant predecessor Silvio Berlusconi.

Monti took the key economy and finance portfolio himself and appointed Corrado Passera, chief executive of Intesa Sanpaolo, one of Italy's big two banks, as industry minister in an unelected cabinet which contained no politicians.

He gave nothing away when asked about his program on Wednesday, but the broad thrust of the measures is expected to match closely reform demands made by European authorities to Berlusconi's center-right government.

Reforming a system that allows many Italians to claim a pension before the age of standard retirement age of 65 and loosening hiring and firing rules that protect some workers but discourage job creation are among possible measures.

There has also been speculation about a wealth tax on privately held assets, possibly including first homes, a measure that has been strongly opposed by Berlusconi's center-right party but which unions and the left have urged repeatedly.

Monti said on Wednesday he was confident his new government would help restore confidence to panicked financial markets but the task he faces was underlined by the continued surge in Italian bond yields.

Yields on 10-year bonds were over 7 percent, near the levels that forced Greece and Ireland to seek an international bailout, which would overwhelm the euro zone's current financial defenses if it were needed by Italy, the bloc's third largest economy.

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The appointment of Monti, a sober and reserved economist and tough negotiator with a decade of experience as European Commissioner, was greeted with palpable relief by foreign leaders exasperated by the scandal-plagued Berlusconi.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed the appointment and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would meet Monti as soon as possible.

Jean-Claude Juncker, chairman of the euro zone finance ministers group, who said he was particularly pleased that the prime minister had taken the finance portfolio himself and said Monti was "the man for the situation".

"The rapid and implementation of all the measures voted recently by the Italian parliament must be a priority to return the country to the path of political credibility," he said in a statement.

The growing threat that Italy's stagnant economy will slip into recession next year will make it increasingly difficult to keep control of its huge public debt, which amounts to 120 percent of gross domestic product, the second highest in the euro zone behind Greece.

International authorities including the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund have kept up pressure on Italy to cut its debt and reform its economy but Monti will need the backing of parliament.

Monti has said he wants to serve until the next scheduled elections in 2013 but the refusal of the main parties to allow politicians to join his cabinet could make it harder to gain popular support for measures designed by unelected technocrats.

(Additional reporting by Gavin Jones, John O'Donnell in Brussels and Alexandria Sage in Paris; editing by Andrew Roche)

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