The Italian Job

Italy has dropped out of the spotlight a little following the protracted political soap opera surrounding Silvio Berlusconi. But it remains perhaps the euro zone’s most dangerous flashpoint.

Prime Minister Enrico Letta now has some time to push through economic reforms, cut taxes and spending in an effort to galvanize activity. But already the politics look difficult.

Italy’s three main unions are to strike over the government’s 2014 budget plan. Former premier Mario Monti resigned as head of his centrist party after it supported the budget which he viewed as way too modest, lacking in meaningful tax cuts and deregulation.

The centre-right PDL, which makes up a fractious coalition government with Letta’s centre-left, is crying foul though for different reasons. The budget, which must be passed by year-end, is only a first step towards putting Italy right and it’s in trouble.

This week, Italy will sell debt from bills to bonds at three separate auctions. It has encountered few problems with debt-raising this year but given the backdrop, this bears watching. Rome starts off today with an offer of up to 3 billion euros of zero-coupon and inflation-linked bonds, then up to 8 billion euros of Treasury bills on Tuesday. On Thursday, it will auction up to 6 billion euros of five- and 10-year bonds.

Angie ascendant

The ecstasy and the agony.

Angela Merkel scored a resounding election victory but by apparently falling just short of an overall majority, while her FDP coalition colleagues failed to get the 5 percent share of the vote needed for any parliamentary representation, she is probably going to have to turn to the centre-left SPD to form a government.

An SPD/Greens/left coalition is not impossible but having secured 42 percent of the vote, the tune is Merkel’s to call.

A grand CDU/SPD coalition is favoured by the German public, according to the polls, and could lead to some policy shifts, and certainly a lot of haggling over key positions in government (will Wolfgang Schaeuble remain as finance minister?) but is unlikely to lead to any seismic shifts, particularly in euro zone policy. The anti-euro Alternative for Germany (AfD) fell just short of 5 percent but having come from nowhere in just seven months, it has put down a marker.

Back from the brink

Pulling back from the brink. The Federal Reserve certainly has and so has Silvio Berlusconi (so far).

Not much to say about the Fed directly, except that it’s surely still only a matter of time, but it certainly takes the pressure off the central banks meeting in our region today. German Bund futures have leapt about 1-1/2 points and Italian bond futures are up more than a full point. We can expect emerging market assets to climb sharply too – the Turkish lira is up three percent, for example, giving its embattled central bank some breathing space.

Further out though, what this has done is create more uncertainty rather than giving investors a firm direction of travel. Presumably, Bernanke and co. are somewhat alarmed about the durability of U.S. economic recovery, which should give everyone pause for thought.

Banking union shift

For most of the year, the biggest question for the euro zone was whether the pace of reform would pick up after German elections which are now just six days away. Thanks to a Reuters exclusive over the weekend it appears the answer could be yes, at least incrementally.

Senior EU officials told us that Germany is working on a plan that would allow the completion of a euro zone banking union without changing existing EU law. Until now, Berlin has insisted the EU would have to amend its Treaty to move power to close or fix struggling banks from a national to a European level – a process which could take years.

In exchange, a cross-border resolution agency would only rule over the fate of 130 euro zone banking groups that will be directly supervised by the European Central Bank from the second half of 2014. That would leave Germany’s politically sensitive savings banks under Berlin’s control.

Norway shifts tack

Norway’s centre-right swept to power last night, ousting a centre-left government that couldn’t capitalize on a solidly performing economy which escaped the world financial crisis largely unscathed (uncanny echoes of Australia’s weekend election here). The popular feeling seems to have been that a decade of strong growth was wasted and is now slowing.

Erna Solberg, Norway’s second woman premier, will have to govern with the anti-immigration, anti-tax Progress party which could be problematic. But they seem at one on the need for lower taxes at least.

Solberg also wants to revamp the $750 billion oil fund, the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund. Changes could include breaking it up and requiring it to start investing in Norway, forbidden until now.

Italian elections may yet shake euro zone

Is Italy about to add some bite to its bark as far as the euro zone is concerned? Quite possibly. An opinion poll last night showed Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition is charging up along the rails, increasing the chances of a messy election result with the front-running centre-left unable to form a stable government.

Although it retains a strong lead, the way votes are carved up in the Senate could easily rob it of a majority in the upper house. The huge media coverage Berlusconi can command via his empire may be starting to tell. Technocrat premier Mario Monti, who could yet play a key part in a centre-left administration if his centrist grouping is needed in a coalition, responded to the polling evidence by launching a stinging attack on Berlusconi.

Markets have so far been utterly sanguine about the late February election but if Berlusconi’s resurgence continues, that could change abruptly. The favoured outcome would be a PD (centre-left) government supported by Monti who would act as guarantor of economic reforms needed to increase Italian competitiveness and growth. But a chunk of the Democrat Party (PD) want a sharp change of course from Monti’s austerity path, and its main coalition partner on the left, the SEL, are implacably opposed to his policies. So nothing is certain.

Italy gives new bite to euro zone crisis

Don’t start putting out the tinsel yet. Just when we thought we had a smooth glide path into Christmas the euro zone has bitten back.

Over the weekend, Italy’s Mario Monti called Silvio Berlusconi’s bluff and said he was pulling the government down which will mean early elections in February. The budget bill will be passed and then the country will be in a potentially precarious state of limbo as parliament is dissolved. Italian bond futures have opened more than a point lower, which denotes a reasonable measure of alarm, although the safe haven Bund future has only edged up so we’re far from panic mode.

The big question is whether a government results that will stick to Monti’s agenda and whether he himself will have a prominent role to play in the administration. There are constitutional difficulties to keeping Monti as prime minister since he has said he would not stand at the election, though he has also said he would be prepared to step in again if no stable government is formed. Most likely, presuming a government is elected that supports his reforms, is that he will play a key role but not take the top job.

Lucky enough to pay taxes

“People. People who pay taxes, Are the luckiest people in the world …” That may not be exactly how the lyrics, most memorably sung by Barbra Streisand in the musical “Funny Girl” actually go, but one could argue that one is lucky to be well off enough to pay federal income taxes.

A research note from Stone & McCarthy Research Associates economist Nancy Vanden Houten wonders why “obsessing about taxpayers with no federal income tax liability” has become a focus of the U.S. presidential campaign.

We think the emphasis is misplaced. A more appropriate question to ask is how much all taxpayers benefit from provisions of the tax code.

In the shadow of Greek elections

Italy, rapidly moving centre stage after the euro zone’s failure to assuage markets with a 100 billion euros Spanish bank bailout, faces a crunch bond auction. Having paid four percent to borrow for a year yesterday, it is likely to fork out over five percent for three-year paper although the smaller than usual target of up to 4.5 billion euros means the sale should get away. It will also issue a smattering of 2019 and 202 bonds.

Technocrat prime minister Mario Monti’s honeymoon period is over with even some he would have considered allies decrying the slow pace of his reform programme. Already this week he has appealed to Italy’s fractious political parties for support in keeping the austerity show on the road.
Today, Monti hosts France’s Francois Hollande. They agree on a lot – the need for a stronger growth strategy, a banking union established sooner rather than later and a longer-term goal of euro zone bonds. Berlin, with the possible exception of the first goal, definitely does not.

Moody’s slashed Spain’s rating to just one notch above junk last night. The power of the ratings agencies to shock is significantly diminished but if Spain’s sovereign rating drops further, more of whatever non-Spanish bank private investors are left will be forced to head for the exits. Moody’s noted that the bank bailout will increase Spain’s debt burden and the dangerous of loop of damaged banks being the main buyers of Spanish government debt which is falling in value. It repeated its warning that euro zone ratings could be cut further if Sunday’s Greek election were to increase the chances of that country leaving the euro.

Euro zone on the move … too slowly?

With Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy calling for a new euro zone fiscal authority to manage the bloc’s finances and send markets a signal that EU leaders mean business about defending the euro, it is clear that the push towards fiscal union, led by Germany, is gathering momentum. Germany has also conceded that Spain should get an extra year to make the spending cuts demanded of it, suggesting it is aware that the crisis is lapping at its door again.

But economic union, even if agreed (it runs contrary to generations of French political culture to relinquish that amount of national sovereignty) will take many months even years to put into practice, given the complex treaty changes that will be required.

The hope is that a strong signal of intent at the end-June EU summit will calm markets and encourage the European Central Bank to hold the fort in the meantime. The former looks like a somewhat heroic hope. On the latter? Well, the ECB has made it quite clear it wants government to sort out the mess but has also consistently proved itself to be the only institution capable of moving quickly enough when the crisis turns acute. So it will almost certainly intervene again if the bloc reaches the point of calamity, though that is more likely to take the form of an interest rate cut and a third round of three-year money creation than a serious revival of its bond-buying programme.