Mario Monti’s ability to take a crisis and turn it into an opportunity may one day be taught as a case study in political economy. When Italy’s technocratic premier succeeded Silvio Berlusconi last November, the country’s 10-year bond yield was above the 7 percent level that had driven Greece, Ireland and Portugal to seek bailouts. Now it is 5.5 percent – still high but moving in the right direction.
Countries with high debt levels like Italy – its borrowing is 120 percent of GDP – are prone to self-fulfilling prophecies on both the upside and the downside. If investors think a government will go bust, borrowing costs rise which, in turn, makes bankruptcy more likely. But if markets think it is solvent, borrowing costs fall and that means it’s unlikely to fail.
In Italy, where I spent much of last week, there have been spirals within spirals. One has been via domestic politics. Monti has so much credibility that he has been able to reform the pension system, liberalise a raft of monopolistic industries and launch a high-profile crackdown on tax evasion. That has helped cut Italian bond yields, further boosting his credibility.
Another spiral has been via international politics. The prime minister’s credibility was an important factor in convincing the European Central Bank to let euro zone banks borrow 500 billion euros before Christmas. Italy was the biggest beneficiary. Its banks are no longer staring into the abyss, with the result that the credit crunch which threatened to suffocate Italian industry is going to be less severe. Moreover, some of the ECB money is finding its way into government bonds, lowering Rome’s borrowing costs.
Monti’s credibility has also helped persuade Germany’s Angela Merkel to ease up a bit on her austerity mantra. One consequence is that, if Italy misses its target of a balanced budget next year, it is unlikely to be forced to tighten fiscal policy again – something that would risk sucking Italy into a Greek-style austerity spiral. President Barack Obama even complimented Monti during an audience last week, saying he had restored faith in Italy and generated confidence in Europe.