Italy faces yet more economic hard times

by Shaun Richards

This morning has brought more signs of the economic malaise that is affecting Italy, a subject which just goes on and on and on. Here is the statistics office.

In 2019, GDP is expected to increase by 0.2 percent in real terms. The domestic demand will provide a contribution of 0.8 percentage points while foreign demand will account for a positive 0.2 percentage point and inventories will provide a negative contribution (-0.8 percentage points).

That is a reduction of 0.1% on the previous forecast. In one way I doubt their forecasts are accurate to 0.1% but then in another way counting 0.1% growth is their job in Italy. The breakdown is odd though. As the net foreign demand may be small but any growth is welcome at a time of a time war but with domestic demand growing why are inventories being chopped?

So annual economic growth has gone 1.7% in 2017 and 0.8% last year and will now be 0.2% if they are correct. They do manage a little optimism for next year.

In 2020, GDP is estimated to increase by 0.6 percent in real terms driven by the contribution of domestic demand (+0.7
percentage points) associated to a positive contribution of the foreign demand (+0.1 p.p.) and a negative contribution of inventories (-0.2 p.p.).

So the main change here is that the decline in inventories slows. If we switch to a positive we are reminded that Italy’s trade position looks pretty good for these times.

In 2019, exports will increase by 1.7 percent and imports will grow by 1.3 percent, both are expected
to slighty accelerate in 2020 (+1.8% and +1.7% respectively)

Looking at domestic demand it will be supported by wages growth and by this.

Labour market conditions will improve over the forecasting period but at moderate pace. Employment
growth is expected to stabilise at 0,7 percent in 2019 and in 2020. At the same time, the rate of
unemployment will decrease at 10.0 percent in the current year and at 9.9 percent in 2020.

They mean 10% this year and 9.9% next although there is a catch with that.

The number of unemployed persons declined (-1.7%, -44 thousand in the last month); the decrease was the result of a remarkable drop among men and a light increase for women, and involved all age groups, with the exception of over 50 aged people. The unemployment rate dropped to 9.7% (-0.2 percentage points), the youth rate decreased to 27.8% (-0.7 percentage points).

As you can see the unemployment rate was already below what it is supposed to be next year so I struggle to see how that is going to boost domestic demand. Perhaps they are hoping that employment will continue to rise.

In October 2019 the estimate of employed people increased (+0.2%, +46 thousand); the employment rate rose at 59.2% (+0.1 percentage points).

The Markit PMIs

There was very little cheer to be found in the latest private-sector business survey published earlier.

The Composite Output Index* posted at 49.6 in November,
down from 50.8 in October and signalling the first decline in Italian private sector output since May. Despite this, the rate of contraction was marginal.
Underpinning the latest downturn was a marked slowdown
in service sector activity growth during November, whilst
manufacturing output recorded its sixteenth consecutive
month of contraction. The latest decrease was sharp but
eased slightly from October.

I doubt anyone is surprised by the state of play in Italian manufacturing so the issue here is the apparent downturn in the service sector. This leads to fears about December and for the current quarter as a whole. Also the official trade optimism is not found here.

Meanwhile, export sales continue to fall.

Sadly there is little solace to be found if we look at the wider Euro area.

The final eurozone PMI for November came in
slightly ahead of the earlier flash estimate but still
indicates a near-stagnant economy. The survey
data are indicating GDP growth of just 0.1% in the
fourth quarter, with manufacturing continuing to act
as a major drag. Worryingly, the service sector is
also on course for its weakest quarterly expansion
for five years, hinting strongly that the slowdown
continues to spread.

Unicredit

We have looked regularly at the Italian banking sector and its tale of woe. But this is from what is often considered its strongest bank.

After cutting a fifth of its staff and shutting a quarter of its branches in mature markets in recent years, UniCredit said it would make a further 8,000 job cuts and close 500 branches under a new plan to 2023………UniCredit’s announcement triggered anger among unions in Italy, where 5,500 layoffs and up to 450 branch closures are expected given the relative size of the network compared with franchises in Germany, Austria and central and eastern Europe.

Back in January 2012 I described Unicredit as a zombie bank on the business programme on Sky News. It has spent much if not all of the intervening period proving me right. That is in spite of the fact that ECB QE has given it large profits on its holdings of Italian government bonds. Yet someone will apparently gain.

UniCredit promised 8 billion euros ($9 billion) in dividends and share buybacks on Tuesday in a bid to revive its sickly share price, although profit at Italy’s top bank will barely grow despite plans to shed 9% of its staff.

This is quite a mess as there are all sorts of issues with the share buyback era in my opinion.  In the unlikely event of me coming to power I might rule them ultra vires as I think the ordinary shareholder is being manipulated. Beneath this is a deeper point about lack of reform in the Italian banking sector and hence its inability to support the economy. This is of course a chicken and egg situation where a weak economy faces off with a weak banking sector.

Mind you this morning Moodys have taken the opposite view.

The outlook for Italy’s banking system has changed to stable from negative as problem loans will continue to fall, while banks’ funding conditions improve and their capital holds steady, Moody’s Investors Service said in a report published today.

“We expect Italian banks’ problem loans to fall in 2020 for a fifth consecutive year,” said Fabio Iannò, VP-Senior Credit Officer at Moody’s. “However, their problem loan ratio of around 8% remains more than double the European Union average of 3%, according to European Banking Authority data. We also take into account our forecast for weak yet positive Italian GDP growth, and our stable outlook on Italy’s sovereign rating.”

What could go wrong?

Comment

There is a familiar drumbeat and indeed bass line to all of this. In the midst of it I find it really rather amazing that Moodys can take UK banks from stable to negative whilst doing the reverse for Italian ones! As we look for perspective we see that the “Euro boom” and monetary easing by the ECB saw annual economic growth of a mere 1.7% in 2017 which has faded to more or less zero now. We are back once again to the “girlfriend in a coma” theme.

Italy has strengths in that it has a solid trade position and is a net saver yet somehow this never seems to reach the GDP data. Maybe the grey economy provides an answer but year after year it fails to be measured. Of course if politico are correct there is always plenty of trade and turnover here.

Italy’s new coalition government might not last the winter, with tensions reaching a peak this week over EU bailout reform……The 5Stars oppose the planned ESM reform because they say it would make it harder for highly indebted countries, like Italy, to access bailout funds without painful public-debt restructuring.

That reminds me about fiscal policy which is the new go to in the Euro area according to ECB President Christine Lagarde, well except for Italy and Greece.