The euro zone’s future hangs on Italy – and Italy’s future hangs on its politics. The best way forward would be a grand coalition replacing Silvio Berlusconi’s discredited government. But after the prime minister’s Houdini act last week, that doesn’t seem likely and other scenarios aren’t as attractive.
Until recently, investors didn’t pay too much attention to the multi-dimensional chess game that is Italian politics. The state may have nearly 2 trillion euros of debt, equal to 120 percent of GDP, but the country is rich: Net household wealth was 8.6 trillion euros in 2009, according to the Bank of Italy. The deal-making and back-stabbing in Rome – or for that matter, Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga sex parties – didn’t seem to matter. True, the country has virtually stopped growing in recent years. But there was even a view that Italy benefited from having politicians that were so concerned with their elaborate games that they couldn’t interfere with the business of business.
All that changed in early July. As the euro crisis gathered pace, scandals and wrangling in Rome unsettled markets. The 10-year bond yield, which had been a relatively comfortable 4.8 percent, shot up to 6 percent in two weeks. Berlusconi and Giulio Tremonti, his previously respected finance minister, fell out. The center-right government, which survives on a wafer-thin majority, was able to pass austerity measures to cut the deficit. But the actions were seen as too little, too late. Investors became hyper-sensitive to Italian politics and were no longer willing to take things on trust.
The rot was only stopped by the European Central Bank wading into the market in August and buying Italian bonds. But even this bought only temporary respite. Despite two European summits last week designed to provide a comprehensive solution to the euro crisis, Italian yields ended the week back at 6 percent. The country is on the edge of a debt spiral as investors’ concerns about the country become self-fulfilling. If borrowing costs rise further, the country’s debts won’t seem sustainable, meaning yields could shoot still higher.
The best way of breaking the vicious spiral would be to have a positive political shock – to counter the negative one delivered over the summer. And the best way of achieving that would be to have a temporary grand coalition led by a technocrat such as Mario Monti, the former European Commissioner. Its mission would be to take harsh actions needed to solve Italy’s two big problems: debt and low growth. Labor markets would be liberalized; the bloated public sector would be cut down to size; and the over-generous pension system would be reformed. It might even be possible to reduce debt to below the psychologically important 100 percent mark by privatizing assets and instituting a one-off property tax.