Your Thoughts: Italy’s Crisis & the Eurozone

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According to many reports, Italy’s ongoing political failure has potential to bring the Eurozone crashing down, which in turn could cause mass impact across the globe’s economy, both short term and long term.

In a recent turnoff events, both parties Five Star Movement and Lega Nord have been committed to the Italian government following a period of limbo since the March general election. Italy currently represents almost a fifth in the Eurozone economy and is feared as “too big to be saved.” Giuseppe Conte has been appointed the interim PM.

Below Finance Monthly has collected Your Thoughts in this financial debacle, summarising some points of expertise form top reputable sources across Europe.

Daniele Fraiette, Senior Economist, Dun & Bradstreet:

Italy’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, will need to try and strike a balance between reassuring European partners about Italy’s permanence in the eurozone, and the 5SM’s and NL’s overt intolerance towards European Union rules on budgets and immigration.

In the weeks before the resolution of the crisis, Italian bond yields rose to levels only seen at the peak of the debt crisis in 2012, dragging yields on other peripheral euro-zone economies’ debt higher. The spread between Italy’s 10-year government bonds and Germany’s equivalent-maturity bonds also soared, passing the 330 basis point mark. The political vacuum seems now to have been filled; however, the spread remains at levels which signal significant market concerns around the country. The end of the ECB’s bond-buying is an additional factor of concern as they could prompt a significant increase in Italy’s borrowing costs.

Italy’s overall macroeconomic environment has improved remarkably over the past years: real GDP grew by 1.5% in 2017 and looks set to expand further in the 2018-19 period, the current account surplus currently stands at around 3% of GDP and its debt service cost has dropped to below 4% of GDP, down from above 6% before the introduction for the single currency. However, at 132% of GDP, Italy’s stock of public debt is huge, and the ongoing political turmoil poses a threat to the country’s stability. Indeed, should the political crisis morph into a sovereign debt crisis, debt costs would soar and debt service become unsustainable.

If Italy defaulted on its debt (which is not Dun & Bradstreet’s baseline scenario given Italy’s strong domestic investor base), the survival of the eurozone would be irreparably compromised. There is also a risk that concerns over a possible referendum on the euro, repeatedly contemplated by the 5SM and the NL but eventually scrapped from their election manifestos, could trigger a flight of deposits from Italian banks, many of which remain saddled with high levels of non-performing loans.

Although the darkest hour of Italy’s politics seems to be over, tensions between the Italian government and the EU, as well as within the government itself, are highly likely to persist; political uncertainty will likely remain elevated in the quarters ahead and the risk of early elections constantly looming.

Roberto Sparano, Globalaw:

After the longest political crisis in Italian history, a new cabinet of ministers was appointed on Saturday. Technically, the new government needs the confidence vote of both chambers of the Italian parliament, but it seems likely that the vote will go in favour of the odd alliance between the 5stars movement and the Lega.

In the closing moments of his BBC TV commentary for the 1966 FIFA World Cup Final, Kenneth Wolstenholme said “They think it’s all over,” but in reality it was not! This is, more or less, what is happening now. Most Italians are happy that it is over and we are back to normal, however, in realty this is only the beginning.

Local elections are scheduled for the 10th of June, and both the Lega and M5S will campaign on different and opposite barricades. Campaigns can easily turn ugly in Italy, and the first objective of the new government will be to survive these next few weeks without any major clash between the two parties.

In fact, the new local elections will be the first referendum against Europe and the Eurozone.

As Italians, we always have difficulty owning up to our responsibilities, that is the way we are, and we have become experts in the art of shifting the blame onto others. Germany has, for many reasons, been the perfect target since the end of WWII.

The notion of external control was actually one of the factors that convinced Italian lawmakers and politicians to join the European Union in the first place. This is because, if anything goes wrong, or is hard to swallow and unpopular, the blame falls on the EU as an external body- and obviously the Germans!

This may be a hopeless situation… but it is not serious, like in the 1965 movie directed by Reinhardt.

I do not think that the Eurosceptic have been strengthened from the last Italian elections. The truth is that most people are not ashamed to feel anti-EU (given that the EU has served as a punching ball and a symbolic cradle-of-all-evil over the past decades). Two non-traditional political movements are only going to cash in on this feeling.

Italy’s political climate will have a consequential effect on the Eurozone and the European Union. I am convinced that the Lega is aware that we cannot leave the EU or the Euro (I cannot speak for the M5S since I do not think they have any policy or line at all), but they are also aware that the other Euro partners cannot afford Italy’s break from the Euro or the EU.

The current anti-European feeling will undoubtedly be used as a bargaining chip for other purposes, for example, to stop immigration or, even better, to accelerate the process of moving immigrants from Italy. If Germany and the EU play this the hard way it could be fun to watch, although, as an Italian, it will be painful. On the flip side, it could be the perfect opportunity to change the EU, although, while Lega and M5S are calling for a new and stronger Europe, nobody knows (including Lega and M5S) what a “stronger Europe” really means.  My idea of a stronger Europe … I fear it is exactly the opposite of the idea of the Lega.

The situation is unpredictable, some of the measures that form part of the “Contract” between Lega and M5S could have a beneficial impact on our economy, although the Italian debt will skyrocket and in the long term, this would have a devastating effect.

The real problem will be the Italian State rating and the Italian bank rating. If the new government leads to a downgrading, the ECB will not be allowed to acquire our State bonds. Due to this, quantative easing measures will cease to help our growth, and the banks will collapse.

Italian economics are already not brilliant (that is lawyerlish for awful). We are the slowest growing European member, our private sector has never driven, and our banks … well our banks are declining.

We are already a supermarket for foreign corporations; Chinese, Indian, USA and other European companies have already acquired most of the jewels of the crown in terms of brand know-how, and excellence. Despite this, if anything goes wrong, we will become a discount or outlet!

On the other hand, our history shows that Italy always manages to survive, after all, on April 25th each year we celebrate the victory against nazi-fascism in WWII.

Giuliano Noci, Professor of Strategy and Marketing, Politecnico di Milano School of Management:

Following a week of political uncertainty in Italy, international financial markets are recovering well. Analysts expect that the announcement of a new government and the unlikelihood of fresh elections indicate that no further disruption will occur.

However, the root causes of how Italy landed in this particular political situation – where the young Five Star movement and Matteo Salvini’s League won more than half the votes in parliament – must not be ignored.

Both parties – although internationally scorned for Eurosceptic views – were able to gain the support of the Italian population, playing on both their emotions and feelings of insecurity. Both delivered well-designed storytelling campaigns via social media rather than mainstream media – a technique neglected by other parties.

The population’s insecurity has two main manifestations. Firstly, the feeling that the EU did not do enough to help Italy during the mass immigration of refugees of Syrian war. Secondly, the sense that the EU is failing Italy in important economic areas. Five Star promised a basic income for the unemployed whilst they train and upskill, and the League pledged to reduce the burden of fiscal taxation on companies by introducing a flat tax system.

So, are the parties reaching the core of Italy’s problems and setting out the right solutions? This is a question which deserves careful consideration. In my opinion, the parties were wrong to use aggressive tactics to fuel the debate about whether to remain in the EU. However, they were very right to suggest that the European Union must significantly change the rules of the game. We are seeing problems not only in Italy, but in Greece, Spain and perhaps even France in the imminent future.

These are signs that the Eurozone is not working, which is most likely because the Euro project is incomplete. Although we have a unique currency, there is no unique system for managing the risk of banks or the unbalanced, heterogenous economic systems of each country.

In the long run, a lack of reforms will create a bigger problem for the Eurogroup than Italy’s political situation. Change must come from within the EU following this situation and discussions of structural reforms in the banking sectors, as well as a safety net fund, must begin.

If no change occurs, the 2019 EU elections are likely to be just as complex as Italy’s.

Stephen Jones, Chief Investment Officer, Kames Capital:

Following Macron’s victory, the eurozone was the ‘good news’ story of 2017 as the area’s economy burst into life and global investors returned in droves. This year has seen economic momentum collapse sharply and, perhaps more than coincidentally, populist pressures have brought the fault lines back to the fore. For the moment this is an Italian issue but these pressures exist in most eurozone nations.

Equity markets have weakened on these changes but Italian worries have largely reinforced a trend already in place. Elevated ratings, and analysts offering a very rosy earnings outlook, left markets vulnerable to poor news and a variety of geo-political developments have emerged to offer that challenge; fat profits were there to be taken.

These risk markets setbacks have, however, taken the steam out of rising short rate and long yield forecasts and will probably succeed in ensuring that quantitative easing is continued in Europe for longer than might otherwise have been the case. When the dust settles, this should underpin equity markets, allowing progress to be made afresh and from safer levels; the positive earnings outlook offered by analysts have good real-world support.

However, to be clear, this supposes that Italy stops short of turning a drama into a crisis. Those of us of a certain vintage know well enough that Italian politics are not to be trusted.

Jordan Hiscott, Chief Trader, ayondo markets:

I was recently asked If I thought the current situation in Italy, in regard to potentially leaving the EU, was a black swan event. My response was no; a grey swan would be a much more suitable adjective to describe Italy in its current state. The ultimate definition of this would be a risk event that can be anticipated to a certain degree but still considered unlikely. A black swan being an event that is not anticipated in the slightest.

Italy has the third largest economy in the Eurozone and this political turmoil, of once again populist vote, threatens the unity of the bloc. But the situation is further exacerbated by the perilous state of Italian banks. Indeed, this is nothing new and they have been in the poor shape for a while, and the only surprising part to me is that the market hasn’t been paying attention to this, until now.

The culmination of the situation is we now have a perfect storm. Another type of a coalition government has been formed and the cynic in me looks at Italian politics on a historical basis and questions if this is this indeed the end of an unstable ruling government or in the colloquial sense, papering over the cracks? This is coupled with a worsening financial situation for the nation’s major banks. The move on Italian two-year treasury yields last week was nothing short of astounding, with the range and volatility more akin to a cryptocurrency than of a bond from a first world country.

The Italian stock market is now almost completely unchanged on a five-day basis, given it was down over 7% at once stage last week.  In addition, to confirm this, EURUSD has moved from a low of 1.1520 last week to 1.1750. The next move will be key, but from my perspective I’m finding it hard to feel positive, even from a mean reversion perspective, for the pair, given the length and weighted negative implications surrounding Italy at present.

April LaRusse, ‎Fixed Income Product Specialist, Insight Investment:

In contrast to the European sovereign crisis, Italy is now an idiosyncratic story. Across Europe, the previous crisis hit countries such as Spain, Greece and Portugal are all on an improving path, reaping the rewards of structural reforms implemented after the crisis. In Italy, pension reforms were certainly a positive step, but the country failed to undertake the deeper changes needed to sustainably raise potential growth.

The two key parties are proposing a range of expansionary fiscal measures, cutting both income and corporate taxes and proposing a minimum citizens income of €780 per month. Although more controversial measures, such as asking the European Central Bank (ECB) to write off up to €250bn of Italian debt, have been dropped, investors will be well aware that these were considered serious policy proposals by elements of the new government.

Debt/GDP will start to rise once again and credit rating agencies are likely to start to downgrade Italian debt, in contrast to the rest of Europe where credit ratings are improving. This leaves us cautious on Italian spreads, especially in an environment where we believe the ECB will be winding down its quantitative easing purchases.

David Jones, Chief Market Strategist, Capital.com:

There is a familiar feel to the catalyst behind the increased levels of volatility that traders and investors have seen across all markets, leaving some wondering if we are going to have another Eurozone crisis along the lines of that involving Greece from 2016. At this stage that does seem like an overly-pessimistic view, but it’s not hard to understand why safe-haven buying is the order of the day.

An oft-repeated phrase from past Eurozone crises was “kicking the can down the road”, referring to deferring that country’s debt obligations. This time around it feels as if the political can, rather than the financial one is being kicked into the long grass – and this is what is spooking markets. One of the main worries for traders is another election in a few months could result in a populist government that wants to renegotiate Italy’s debt with the EU. This is running at around 130% of the country’s GDP – the second highest level after, you guessed it, Greece.

The obviously immediate casualty was the euro. It had hit a three-year high against the US dollar as recently as February this year. Since then it’s dropped back by around 8% to its lowest level since last July. There is a double-whammy behind traders’ decisions to sell euros. Clearly any uncertainty about Italy’s debt repayments and the country’s commitment to the single currency doesn’t inspire confidence – plus this year already we have seen a resurgence in popularity for the US dollar after its slide in 2017 was the worst performance for more than a decade. It can always be argued that the market reaction is overdone – but whilst Italy’s political future remains uncertain, it’s a brave trader who calls the bottom of this slide.

European stock markets have also been hit. The Italian market is the obvious biggest casualty and is now down by 13% in just one month – but the German and UK markets are also lower as investors adopt the familiar “risk-off” approach at the slightest whiff of a possible euro crisis. Many world stock markets already had some fragility when it comes to investor sentiment after the sharp falls seen in February and an ever-increasing oil price – it is difficult to see these recent losses being made back quickly.

While some sort of “dead cat bounce” can’t be ruled out in the days ahead, as long as this political can-kicking continues, then investors are likely to remain cautious about taking on risk – so it could be a summer of European-inspired volatility across all asset types.

Tertius Bonnin, Investment Analyst, EQ Investors:

This had been a slow moving car crash in which the signs have been there for all to see; populist parties were the clear winners of the March election (nearly three months ago) and the two largest parties, the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, had been negotiating a framework for co-governance since. Surprisingly, a number of market participants had expressed that they didn’t anticipate the “change” in attitude of the two famously Eurosceptic parties towards the euro. It should be noted that Italy isn’t new to political uncertainty, with Italian voters seeing 62 governments since 1946.

The Italian President’s veto of the proposed finance minister, Paolo Savona, and the subsequent increase in the probability of another election caused a kneejerk reaction in the markets on Monday. These moves spilled into the Tuesday session as the Monday was a bank holiday in the US and UK. Trading volumes on the Monday were therefore relatively thin in comparison. Tuesday saw huge spikes in key barometers of relative risk such as the Italian-German government bond spread (difference in yield) and the Italian two year bond yield. Global banking stocks, considered most sensitive to a change in economic activity, also sold off. Despite the so called PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) taking significant knocks, investors in relatively safe government bonds (German bunds, UK gilts and US treasuries) benefited from a “flight to safety” whereby panicked investors moved capital into less risky assets.

There had briefly been calls by the Five Star Movement’s leader to impeach President Mattarella. Under Article 90 of the Italian constitution, parliament may demand the president to step down after securing a simple majority. Italy’s constitutional court would theoretically then decide whether or not to impeach Mr Mattarella. Given the president had not violated any Italian laws, this route appeared relatively futile. On this impasse, the populist coalition appeared to have collapsed and the market took a collective sigh of relief as the Italian President moved to appoint ex-IMF director Carlo Cottarelli to run a short-term technocratic administration until the next set of elections. It should be noted that the Five Star Movement, the Northern League and Berlusconi’s party all said they would have vetoed this.

It is likely this development fed into the Northern League’s decision to call for fresh elections at a political rally, having seen an uplift of circa 8% in opinion polling. Investors once again panicked that the risk of future elections had the potential to not only reinforce the populist parties’ positions in both parliamentary chambers, but become a de facto referendum on Italy’s euro membership. After 2017 being relatively benign year for political risk, investors had been caught asleep at the wheel in terms of pricing in uncertainty in the political sphere.

By Friday the situation had turned around once again after the Italian President provided more time for the Five Star and Northern League parties to form a government; the former designate Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was sworn into office while the key Finance Minister role went to a seemingly more pro-European, Giovanni Tria, who headed the Economy Faculty at Rome’s Tor Vergata University. Paolo Savona, the former candidate vetoed for this position will now serve as Minister for European Affairs in a sign that the new administration’s focus will be on fiscal expansion plans and rolling back reforms, rather than investor angst around fresh elections and euro membership. This rollercoaster ride in political uncertainty has been tracked by the spike in yield of the supposedly risk-free Italian government bond.

We would also love to hear more of Your Thoughts on this, so feel free to comment below and tell us what you think!

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