Opinion

Hugo Dixon

Italy could reignite euro crisis

Hugo Dixon
Feb 26, 2013 10:15 UTC

Can the Italians be serious? That is likely to be the reaction of financial markets and the country’s euro zone partners as they ponder a disastrous election result, which could reignite the euro crisis. More than half of those who voted chose one of two comedians: Beppe Grillo, who really is a stand-up comic; and Silvio Berlusconi, who drove Italy to the edge of the abyss when he was last prime minister in 2011. Both are anti-euro populists.

This comedy could easily end in tragedy. The inconclusive result has echoes of last year’s first Greek election – except that Italy is bigger and more strategic. The country faces political paralysis, while its economy is shrinking and its debt is rising. The European Commission forecast last week that GDP would fall a further 1 percent this year after last’s year 2.2 percent drop. Debt, meanwhile, would reach 128 percent of GDP by the end of this year.

The euro crisis went into remission after the European Central Bank’s president Mario Draghi promised last summer to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency. But, if Italy proves ungovernable during this critical time, even the ECB’s safety net may not work.

Investors are already getting nervous. Italian 10-year bond yields jumped 0.4 percentage points to 4.7 percent on Tuesday morning. Spanish yields also rose 0.2 percentage points to 5.3 percent, in the first sign of contagion. These are, though, admittedly still a far cry from the 7 percent-plus yields when the crisis was raging last July.

The risk is not that Berlusconi or Grillo will be prime minister. It is rather than nobody will be able to form a stable government. The electorate split into three roughly equal groups: Berlusconi’s centre-right group, Grillo’s uncategorisable 5-Star Movement and the centre-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani. The centrist coalition led by Mario Monti, the technocratic who saved Italy from Berlusconi’s antics but whose austerity policies were deeply unpopular, came a poor fourth.

Banks must probe clients’ motives

Hugo Dixon
Feb 11, 2013 10:17 UTC

Should an investment bank worry about a client’s motive when it engages in a complex and potentially suspicious transaction?

Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS) has been just such a client. The Italian bank, which has just been rescued by the state, engaged in a series of fiendishly complex deals with Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan and Nomura which had the effect of giving a misleading picture of its finances.

One controversy relates to how MPS paid for its acquisition of Antonveneta, another Italian bank, in 2008. JPMorgan helped finance part of the deal by selling 1 billion euros in so-called FRESH notes, a type of bond convertible into MPS equity. But the Bank of Italy objected that they were not sufficiently loss-absorbing and insisted that MPS only pay money to JPMorgan to forward onto the investors if it made a profit.

MPS saga not just a local affair

Hugo Dixon
Jan 28, 2013 10:14 UTC

The Monte dei Paschi di Siena saga is not just an Italian affair. Revelations that complex financial transactions used by the country’s third largest bank had the effect of hiding losses are causing a political storm in Italy.

With a general election only weeks away, Silvio Berlusconi looks like being the main winner from the political spat. The former prime minister’s camp has attacked Pierluigi Bersani’s Democratic Party, which is leading in the opinion polls, for being close to Monte dei Paschi (MPS). It has also criticised Mario Monti, the current prime minister, who agreed to increase MPS’s bailout to 3.9 billion euros.

The scandal won’t be enough to get Berlusconi back as prime minister. But it could prevent a Bersani-Monti coalition from running the country with a solid majority in both houses of parliament. If so, fears about Italian political risk could return to haunt the markets.

Bersani may not be bad for Italy

Hugo Dixon
Dec 3, 2012 10:22 UTC

The last Italian prime minister whose surname began with a “B” – Silvio Berlusconi – was a disaster. The country’s next leader’s name is also likely to start with a “B”.

Investors want Mario Monti, the technocrat who took over from Berlusconi last year, to stay as prime minister after the election, which will probably be in March. But they are more likely to get Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the left-wing Democratic Party (PD). While there are risks, such an outcome may not be as bad as it looks – not least because Bersani has promised to continue with Monti’s policies and was one of the few reformers when Romano Prodi was prime minister in the last decade.

Trade union-backed Bersani will be the standard-bearer for the left in the coming elections after winning a decisive primary at the weekend against Matteo Renzi, the modernising mayor of Florence. His first comments were promising: he said the PD would have to tell Italians the “truth, not fairy-tales” about the country’s grave economic situation.

Is Hollande more like Rajoy or Monti?

Hugo Dixon
Nov 19, 2012 10:41 UTC

Is Francois Hollande more like Mariano Rajoy or Mario Monti? In other words, is the French socialist president condemned to be always behind the curve with reform like Spain’s conservative prime minister? Or can he get ahead of it like Italy’s technocratic premier?

I put this question to my fellow guests at a dinner in Paris last week. France is not in imminent risk of blowing up, as wrongly implied by the Economist magazine, which used a cover picture of a lighted fuse on baguettes tied together like sticks of dynamite. France is much richer than Spain and its people are more willing to pay their taxes than the Italians. French 10-year borrowing cost is only 2.1 percent, compared to Italy’s 4.9 percent and Spain’s 5.9 percent.

That said, the country has three deep-seated problems which could ultimately cause a mega-crisis: public spending at 56 percent of GDP is way too high; industrial competitiveness has steadily eroded; and the population is in a state of denial. The last cannot be said of either Italians or Spaniards.

Spain and Italy mustn’t blow ECB plan

Hugo Dixon
Sep 10, 2012 08:23 UTC

The European Central Bank’s bond-buying scheme has bought Spain and Italy time to stabilise their finances. But if they drag their heels, the market will sniff them out. It will then be almost impossible to come up with another scheme to rescue the euro zone’s two large problem children and, with them, the single currency.

Mario Draghi’s promise in late July to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the euro has already had a dramatic impact on Madrid’s and Rome’s borrowing costs. Ten-year bond yields, which peaked at 7.6 percent and 6.6 percent respectively a few days before the ECB president made his first comments, had collapsed to 5.7 percent and 5.1 percent on Sept. 7.

Most of the decline came before Draghi spelt out last Thursday the details of how the plan will work. What makes the scheme powerful is that the ECB has not set any cap to the amount of sovereign bonds it will buy in the market. The central bank’s financial firepower is theoretically unlimited, whereas the euro zone governments’ own bailout funds do not have enough money to rescue both Spain and Italy.

Confidence tricks for the euro zone

Hugo Dixon
Jul 23, 2012 09:31 UTC

The euro crisis is to a great extent a confidence crisis. Sure, there are big underlying problems such as excessive debt and lack of competitiveness in the peripheral economies. But these can be addressed and, to some extent, this is happening already. Meanwhile, a quick fix for the confidence crisis is needed.

The harsh medicine of reform is required but is undermining confidence on multiple levels. Businesses, bankers, ordinary citizens and politicians are losing faith in both the immediate economic future and the whole single-currency project. That is creating interconnected vicious spirals.

The twin epicentres of the crisis are Spain and Italy. The boost they received from last month’s euro zone summit has been more than wiped out. Spanish 10-year bond yields equalled their euro-era record of 7.3 percent on July 20; Italy’s had also rebounded to a slightly less terrifying but still worrying 6.2 percent.

Successful summit didn’t solve crisis

Hugo Dixon
Jul 2, 2012 09:27 UTC

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí. “Upon waking, the dinosaur was still there.”

This extremely short story by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso sums up the state of play on the euro crisis. Last week’s summit took important steps to stop the immediate panic. But the big economies of Italy and Spain are shrinking and there is no agreed long-term vision for the zone. In other words, the crisis is still there.

The summit’s decisions are not to be sniffed at. The agreement that the euro zone’s bailout fund should, in time, be able to recapitalise banks directly rather than via national governments will help break the so-called doom loop binding troubled lenders and troubled governments. That is a shot in the arm for both Spain and Ireland. Meanwhile, unleashing the bailout fund to stabilise sovereign bond markets could stop Rome’s and Madrid’s bond yields rising to unsustainable levels.

Monti turnaround can go much further

Hugo Dixon
Feb 13, 2012 09:37 UTC

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.

The euro zone’s self-fulfilling spiral

Hugo Dixon
Nov 20, 2011 20:41 UTC

When confidence in a regime’s permanence is shaken, it can collapse rapidly. The fear or hope of change alters people’s behavior in ways which make that change more likely. This applies to both political regimes such as Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and economic regimes such as the euro.

Fear that the single currency may break up now risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Banks and investors are beginning to act as if the single currency might fall apart. Politicians and the European Central Bank need to restore belief that the single currency is here to stay. Otherwise, it could unravel pretty fast.

Until a few weeks ago, the idea that the euro wouldn’t survive the current debt crisis was a fringe view. Since the euro summit on Oct. 26-27, it has become a mainstream scenario. So much so that last week risk premiums on the bonds of even triple-A rated countries such as France and Austria rose to record levels, while Spain became the latest country to be sucked into the danger zone.