Italy – Beyond The ECB’s Fairy Dust

On Sunday, December 4th, Italian voters went to the polls and strongly rejected the proposed constitutional reforms advanced by the government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi by a margin of 59.41% to 40.59%. In the aftermath of the defeat Renzi resigned, potentially setting the stage for a new crisis in Europe.

The problem is that Italy’s banks are weak and need capital infusions (which they are supposed to get from either bail-ins from equity and bondholders or capital markets). Economic growth is weak, expected to be 0.8% this year after a flaccid 0.6% last year (according to the OECD). Italy’s public sector debt is also an issue as it stands at euro 2.33 trillion, equal to 135% of GDP and access to markets to critical for it to be financed. To keep the Italian ship of finance afloat the government and its banks are at the mercy of international markets. The No vote outcome is not a confidence-building action.

Renzi’s proposed reforms sought to streamline Italy’s political system so his Democratic Party-led government could push through a major economic reform package. Along these lines, the referendum would have allowed a restructuring of the government – reducing the number of senators and limiting the senate’s power relative to the lower house of parliament. It would have also curtailed the political power of Italy’s regions and provided the largest party in the lower house after elections with an additional bloc of seats to guarantee a solid majority and stop the country’s rotation of governments. Italy has had over 60 governments since the end of the Second World War. Renzi’s government lasted longer than most – two and a half years.

No one disputes that the Italian economy needs reform. Indeed, The Independent’s Alexandra Sims (December 5, 2016) noted: “Few dispute that economic reforms are necessary: the Italian economy has essentially gone nowhere for 16 years and unemployment is high at 11.5 per cent. With the exception of Greece, Italy has had the worst performance of any eurozone country since the 2008 financial crisis.” Her comments are not reassuring for markets.

Post-referendum Italy sits in uncertain territory. Renzi has resigned and the country’s head of state, President Sergio Mattarella, can accept the Prime Minister’s resignation (which is likely) and ask other parties to form a new coalition government or set a date for new elections. The latter course implies that the President appoints an interim administration. Considering it is December, the likelihood is that any new elections would take place in January, but more likely in February of March. This leaves the all-important post of finance minister open at a time when Italian banks are struggling with large levels of non-performing loans and capitalization issues. Under the circumstances, it will difficult for Italian banks to raise capital and sends the wrong signal to international debt and equity markets.

What further leaves global investors and economic policymakers with a degree of angst is the potential outcome of new elections. A new parliamentary vote could bring the Five Star Movement to power, which was strongly opposed to constitutional reform. The populist party was created by the comedian and internet populist Beppe Grillo, whose slogan is Vaffa! (fuck off) to more or less everything, including the euro.

Grillo wants another referendum to pull Italy out of the eurozone, which he sees as an important step in breaking the so-called German mercantilist hold over Italy’s economy. He also favors an end to EU-mandated government spending limits, income guarantees for all citizens, and possibly defaulting on the country’s debt (which would reduce the burden on the country).

In recent opinion polls, the Five Star Movement, at 28%, is just behind Renzi’s Democratic Party (32%). However, the undisputed winner of December 4th is Grillo and it remains to be seen if he can capitalize on the victory. He still has a lot of work to do if he wants to gain enough votes to be the leading force in forming a new government. Nonetheless, the No victory reinforces the populist tide in the West, which fits in with the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory in the United States. It is no shocker that Grillo announced that he likes Trump.

Italy’s vote adds considerable pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany. Berlin is already dealing with Brexit, a looming change of government in France (most likely with a move to the right), and elections in the Netherlands (with its own populist movement under Geert Wilders likely to gain ground or have a say in the government). At the same time, in Germany the anti-immigrant right has gained ground in local elections and the Chancellor faces a new election test later in 2017. Turkey looms as a headache on the foreign policy front, with relations with Germany and the EU taking a downturn over the Erdogan government’s human rights violations in the aftermath of the July coup attempt. The Turkish president has indicated that he might be willing to loosen up control over refugees in his country, which could put pressure on the EU’s southern front again. It would certainly become an election hot button in German elections.

One last item on Berlin’s and Brussels’ foreign policy agenda is that Algeria’s leader for 17 years is quite ill. His departure could open the door to a crisis in that country, including the strong possibility of a renewed civil war between the military and Islamists. This could complicate energy security for France and Italy as well as open a new front on the migration issue if a new civil war broke out in North Africa. For anyone looking France and Italy are due north of Algeria.

The Italian referendum has come and gone. Renzi has done the same, unseated by rising populist forces, much like David Cameron in the UK. The No victory clearly gives a boost to populist forces throughout Europe and trumps the victory of the green candidate over the far right candidate in Austria’s presidential election this weekend. Italy represents the potential for a major crisis as the country is too big to fail: if there are problems in its ability to refinance debt or to keep its banks afloat, it will take more than what journalist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has called “the European Central Bank’s fairy dust of quantitative easing” to save the day. It is doubtful the same political will could be raised to “save” Italy the way Greece, Portugal and Ireland were saved. Equally important, it is questionable if Italy would want to go through a Greek-style structural adjustment program; rather an exit from the eurozone would probably be preferable. Hopefully Italy’s No vote does not slide into a new European crisis, but it clearly raises the potential for higher volatility in markets and casts a very dark cloud over the country’s finances.

Dr. Scott B. MacDonald
The Global Economic Doctor

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