My article on Italian (and Spanish and Dutsche Bank) mess in Sunday Business Post: https://www.businesspost.ie/business/italys-problem-europes-problem-417945.
Unedited version of the article here:
This fortnight has been a real roller-coaster for the European markets and politics. Only two weeks ago, I wrote about the problems of rising political populism in Italy and Spain as the signals of a broader trend across the block’s member states. This week, in Spain a no confidence motion in Mariano Rajoy’s rule played a side show to Rome’s drama.
The timeline of events in Italy provides the background to this week’s lessons.
The country has been governed by a lame-duck executive since mid-2016. Fed up with Rome’s gridlock, in March 2018 general election, Italians endorsed a parliament split between the populist-Left M5S and the far-Right group of parties led by the League. Month and a half of League-M5S negotiations have produced a shared policies platform, replete with radical proposals for reshaping country’s Byzantine tax and social welfare systems. The platform also contained highly controversial proposals to force the ECB to write down EUR250 billion worth of Government debt, a plan for restructuring fiscal rules to allow the country to run larger fiscal deficits, and a call for immigration system reforms.
On Monday, the President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, a loyal Euro supporter, vetoed the League-M5S candidate for the economy ministry, Eurosceptic Paolo Savona. The result was resignation of the League-M5S Prime Minister-designate, Giuseppe Conte, and a threat of an appointment of the unpopular technocrat, Carlo Cottarelli, an ex-IMF economist nicknamed Mr. Scissors for his staunch support for austerity, as a caretaker Prime Minister. By Thursday night, Conte was back in the saddle, with a new coalition Government agreed and set to be sworn in on Friday.
Crisis avoided? Not so fast.
Risk Blow Out
The markets followed the political turns and twists of the drama. On Tuesday, Italian bonds posted their worst daily performance in over 20 years. The spike in the 2-year bond yield was spectacular, going from 0.3 percent on Monday morning to 2.73 percent on Tuesday, before slipping back to 1.26 percent on Thursday. The 10-year Italian bond yield leaped from 2.37 percent to 3.18 percent within the first two days, falling to 2.84 percent a day after.
To put these bond yields’ movements into perspective, at the week’s peak yields, the cost of funding Italian EUR2.256 trillion mountain of Government debt would have risen by EUR45 billion per annum - more than the forecast deficit increases under the reforms proposed in the League-M5S programme.
Thus, despite the immediate crisis yielding to the new Coalition, a heavy cloud of uncertainty still hangs over the Euro area’s third largest member state. Should the new Government fail to deliver on a unified platform built by an inherently unstable coalition, the new election will be on offer. This will likely turn into a plebiscite on Italy’s membership in the Euro. And it will also raise a specter of another markets meltdown.
The Italian Contagion Problem
The lessons from this week’s spike in political uncertainty are three-fold. All are bad for Italy and for the entire euro area. Firstly, after years of QE-induced amnesia, the investment markets are now ready to force huge volatility and rapid risk-repricing into sovereign bonds valuations. Secondly, despite all the talk in Brussels and Rome about the robustness of post-2011 reforms, the Italian economy remains stagnant, incapable of withstanding any significant uptick in the historically-low borrowing costs that prevailed over recent years, with its financial system still vulnerable to shocks. Thirdly, the feared contagion from Italy to the rest of the Eurozone is not a distant echo of the crises past, but a very present danger.
Italy’s debt mountain is the powder keg, ready to explode. The IMF forecasts from April this year envision Italian debt-to-GDP ratio dropping from 131.5 percent at the end of 2017 to 116.6 percent in 2023. However, should the average cost of debt rise just 200 basis points on IMF’s central scenario, hitting 4 percent, the debt ratio is set to rise to 137 percent. This Wednesday bond auction achieved a gross yield of 3 percent on 10-year bonds. In other words, Italy’s fiscal and economic dynamics are unsustainable under a combination of higher risk premia, and the ECB monetary policy normalisation. The risk of the former was playing out this week and will remain in place into 2019. The latter is expected to start around November-December and accelerate thereafter.
With the government crisis unfolding, the probability of Italy leaving the Euro within 12 months, measured by Sentix Italexit index jumped from 3.6 percent at the end of the last week to 12.3 percent this Tuesday before moderating to 11 percent at the end of Thursday. This puts at risk not only Italian Government bonds, but the private sector debt as well, amounting to close to EUR2 trillion. A rise in the cost of this debt, in line with Government debt risk scenarios, will literally sink economy into a recession.
As Italian Government bonds spreads shot up, other European markets started feeling the pain. Based on the data from Deutsche Bank Research, at the start of 2018, foreign banks, non-bank investors and official sector, including the Euro system, held ca 48 percent of the Italian Government debt. In Spain and Portugal, this number was closer to 65 percent. In other words, the risk of falling bonds prices is both material and broadly distributed across the European financial system for all ‘peripheral’ Euro states.
As a part of its quantitative easing program, the ECB has purchased some EUR250 billion worth of Italian bonds. A significant uptick in risk of Italy’s default on these bonds will put political pressure on ECB. Going forward, Frankfurt will face greater political uncertainty in dealing with the future financial and fiscal crises.
Research from the Bank for International Settlements puts Italian banks’ holdings of Government bonds at roughly EUR 450 billion. Ten largest Italian banks have sovereign-debt exposures that exceed their Tier-1 capital. As the value of these bonds plunges, the solvency risks rise too. Not surprisingly, over the last two weeks, shares of the large Italian banks fell 10-20 percent. These declines in equity prices, in turn, are driving solvency risks even higher.
Beyond the Italian banks, French financial institutions held some EUR44 billion worth of Italian bonds, while Spanish banks were exposed to EUR29 billion, according to the European Banking Authority.
The second order effects of the Italian risk contagion play through the other ‘peripheral’ euro area bonds. As events of this week unfolded, in line with Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece have experienced relatively sharp drops in their bonds values. All three are also subject to elevated political uncertainty at home, made more robust by the Italian crisis.
Thus, if the Italian government bond yields head up, banks’ balance sheets risks mount through both, direct exposures to the Italian Government bonds, and indirect effects from Italian contagion on the broader government debt markets, as well as to the private sector lending.
At the end of this week, all indication are that the Italian contagion crisis is receding. The new risk triggers are shifting out into late 2018 and early 2019. The uneasy coalition between two populist moments, the M5S and the League, is unlikely to survive the onslaught of voter dissatisfaction with the state of the economy and continued immigration crisis. At the same time, the coalition will be facing a highly skeptical EU, hell-bent on assuring that M5S-League Government does not achieve much progress on its reforms. All in, the new Government has between six and twelve months to run before we see a new election looming on the horizon.
The Italian crisis might be easing, but it is not going away any time soon. Neither the Spanish one. Oh, and with a major credit downgrade from the Standard & Poor’s and the U.S. Fed, here goes the systemic behemoth of European finance, the Deutsche Bank.