The battle for Italy's Antonveneta is turning more and more Machiavellian. Banca Popolare di Lodi, the small regional lender that the Bank of Italy has prodded into opposing a bid by ABN Amro, now owns 29 per cent of Antonveneta.

With allies, it controls around 43 per cent, probably enough to dominate the board at this Saturday's shareholder meeting. Yet Consob, the country's quiescent stock market regulator, has failed to declare Lodi and friends a concert party, which would force them to launch a full bid.

To be fair, Lodi said on Wednesday that it wants to merge with Antonveneta - a change of tack from simply being a “stable” shareholder. But it did not reveal anything as vulgar as a strategy or offer price. It also remains unclear how Lodi is financing its stake buying. Analysts believe it has spent around €2bn so far, trashing its capital ratios. Yet, being Italian, that may not matter while the central bank remains supportive.

While this circling of the wagons reduces the chances of ABN's bid succeeding, the Dutch bank is starting to fight a little dirtier itself. It is lobbying in Brussels and launching a legal action in Italy to freeze some of Lodi's voting rights. And even if it loses on all fronts, it might hang on to its 18 per cent stake and make life hard for Lodi as a disgruntled minority shareholder. A bid meant to bring the laws of the market to Italy seems instead to be turning into a game being played according to old-style Italian rules.

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