By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's government has unnerved investors with its angry reaction to this week's deadly bridge collapse, threatening to renationalise toll roads and accusing its predecessors of being in thrall to big business.
But as the new anti-establishment government barks at the private sector, and at motorway operator Autostrade per l'Italia in particular, sources close to the government said it would not bite, at least not so hard as to frighten off investment.
Even delivering on the prime minister's threat to revoke Autostrade's nationwide concession could be unaffordable for the heavily indebted state. It may settle for a heavy fine instead, two government sources said.
Assuming Rome emerged victorious from appeals Autostrade could lodge in the courts, it would have to pay between 15 and 20 billion euros (£13.4-£18 billion) to compensate the company for investments in the motorway network, sector experts told Reuters.
"The government will certainly take action against the concession holder," Deputy Transport Minister Edoardo Rixi told Reuters. "We don't need to wait for investigations because it has objective responsibility for underestimating the risk."
However Rixi, from the right-wing League party, added that the action will not necessarily be revoking the concession. It could be a fine, or only withdrawing the concession for the single motorway that collapsed, he said.
The government has kept investors on edge since it took office in June, seeking to rewrite a contract to sell a major steel plant and sometimes speaking out against large infrastructure projects already under way.
A government source from the 5-Star Movement, the League's coalition partner, confirmed it was "possible" that Rome's attack on Autostrade would end in no more than a fine.
The message was different earlier in the day from Industry Minister Luigi Di Maio, the leader of 5-Star.
"We have to end the contract. If these people are incapable of running our motorways ... it means the state will do it itself," he told reporters. He denied the government would have to pay any penalty if it could prove Autostrade was at fault.
Shares in Autostrade's parent company Atlantia <ATL.MI> closed down 22 percent on Thursday after falling as much as 25 percent in early trading.
Some commentators say the clash with Autostrade may increase suspicions in the business community that the government has a punitive approach to private enterprise.
"It is worth thinking about whether this further fuels the populist feeling across Italy and elsewhere," said a fund manager at a large London-based investor.
"The government has been quick to blame others - the EU, the company itself. It will certainly raise some issues with many other companies in the coming weeks and months," he said.
Rome has already said it could pull out of other multi-billion-euro business commitments it inherited from previous governments. These include a high-speed rail link between Turin and Lyon, a pipeline transporting gas to Europe from Azerbaijan and a commitment to sell Europe's largest steel plant to the multinational AcelorMittal <MT.AS>.
However, coalition officials deny the government is hostile to companies. They point out that the electoral base of the League is among the small-and-medium-sized enterprises in Italy's richest northern regions.
"This is actually a very pro-business government," said Carla Ruocco, a prominent 5-Star Movement lawmaker and president of the lower-house finance committee.
She told Reuters the coalition wants to eliminate the cronyism by which previous Italian governments had offered concessions to its business friends on favourable terms, and this would help competition and free up resources for infrastructure, especially in the poor south.
"I think investors have an interest in a more healthy state and a level playing field," she said, adding that government plans to cut taxes, simplify bureaucracy and give income support to the poor should also be welcomed by business.
"We want to redistribute wealth, help domestic demand and recreate a middle class that can play a constructive role in society like it used to," she said. "Isn't that a pro-business agenda?"
(Additional reporting by Stefano Bernabei and Massimiliano Di Giorgio; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)