What if Italy slips back into an economic recession?

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by Shaun Richards

A feature of bond market and debt crises is not only how far the market falls but how long it lasts. This is because as the majority and sometimes vast majority of debt issued has a coupon ( interest) fixed for its term and so fluctuations in the meantime do not matter for them. The catch is that new deficits need to be financed and existing debt needs to be rolled over and it does matter for them. An example of that is provided by Italy which will issue 2 billion Euros of 5 year bond and 2.5 billion of a ten-year one next week and these will be much more expensive than would have been predicted not so long ago. According to the Italian Treasury or Tesoro some 200 billion Euros of maturities are due next year if we ignored the rolling over of Treasury Bills.

Thus you can see how it takes a while for the costs of a bond market decline to build but build they do. The exact amount varies as for example last Friday we were looking at the nadir for the market so far with a ten-year yield of 3.8% and as I type this it is 3.5%, but both spell trouble. We see regular examples of why this may be bad but let us move to an area where contagion is possible.

The Italian banking system holds €350 billion of government bonds. If 10-year government-bond yields hit 4%, banks’ equity capital will just about equal their nonperforming loans. ( Felix Zulauf in Barrons)

Did anybody mention the Italian banks?

You may not be surprised to read that the ECB press conference yesterday was pretty much a Q&A session on Italy and during it President Draghi told us this.

However we have now the bank lending survey of this quarter. It does say that basically, terms and conditions applied by Italian banks on new loans to enterprises and households for house purchases, tightened. Terms and conditions – so not standards – terms and conditions tightened in the third quarter of 2018, driven by a higher cost of funds and balance sheet constraints.

So things have got tighter for the Italian banks and they have passed it the higher costs to both personal and corporate borrowers. The subject did not go away.

On Italy, I don’t have a crystal ball; I don’t have any idea whether it’s 300 or 400 or whatever. So it’s difficult. But certainly these bonds are in the banks’ portfolios. If they lose value, they are denting into the capital position of the banks; that’s obvious, so that’s what it is.

This was in response to a (poor) question about at what level of the yield spread would the Italian banks hit trouble and the suggestion it might be 400? A better question would be based on Italian yields alone. Also central bankers are hardly likely to tell you a banking crisis is in its way! But you may note that Mario mentioned 3% as opposed to 4% to perhaps cover himself. Also as a former Governor of the Bank of Italy and the Draghi in the Draghi Laws which cover Italian banking his “crystal ball” should be one of the best around.

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This brings me to the issue of the Atlante Fund where Italian banks essentially bailed out other Italian banks. We do not seem to get any updates on it now. Can anybody think what might be happening to a portfolio of non-performing Italian bank loans right now? I recall being told that the deals to take such loans were really good value and that my fears were over done. Now I note that the same Unicredit that I called a Zombie bank around 7 years ago on Sky News looks rather like a Zombie bank to me if you look at all the cash piled in since then and the current share price. This whole issue has been a banking crisis in slow motion so let me remind you of the latter parts of my timeline for a banking collapse.

9. Debt costs of the relevant sovereign nation or nations rise.

10. Consequently that nation finds that its credit rating is downgraded.

11. It is announced that due to difficult financial times public spending needs to be trimmed and taxes such as Value Added Tax need to be raised. It is also announced that nobody could possibly have forseen this and that nobody is to blame apart from some irresponsible rumour mongers who are the equivalent of terrorists. A new law is mooted to help stop such financial terrorism from ever happening again.

12. Some members of the press inform us that bank directors were both “able and skilled” and that none of the blame can possibly be put down to them as they get a new highly paid job elsewhere.

13. Former bank directors often leave the new job due to “unforseen difficulties”.

The Budget Plan

If we move on from the “doom loop” that exists between the Italian economy and its banks we get the current fiscal plan which is to run a deficit of 2.4% of GDP ( Gross Domestic Product). Some number-crunching has been undertaken on this by Olivier Blanchard at the Peterson Institute with some intriguing results.

So, take 0.8 percent of GDP to be the relevant measure of expansion………..To give the government the benefit of the doubt, take a multiplier of 1.5. Then, one would expect an increase in output of 1.5 * 0.8 = 1.2 percent on account of the fiscal stimulus.

So we are in the world, or at least what is left of it, of economics 101 where the extra fiscal stimulus will increase GDP by 1.2%. However there is a catch.

Turn to the other half of the story, the increase in interest rates. Since mid-April, Italian bond yields have risen by about 160 basis points……….Recent estimates of the effects of the OMT suggest slightly lower numbers for Italy, in the region of a 0.8 percent output contraction for a 100-basis-point increase in bond rates.

Some of you may have already completed the mathematical implication of this.

Putting fiscal multiplier effects and contractionary interest rate effects together—and being generous about the size of the multiplier and conservative about the effect of the interest rate increase—arithmetic suggests that the total effect on growth will be 0.8 * 1.5 – 0.8 * 1.6 ≈ –0.1. While this number comes with a large uncertainty band, the risks are skewed to the downside.

So via his methodology up is the new down. Or more formally the fiscal expansion seems set to weaken and not boost GDP.

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One cautionary note is Olivier’s own record in this area as he was Chief Economist at the IMF when it was involved in the disastrous fiscal experiment in Greece which he sweeps up in this paper as “many politicians and economists argued”. This is of course one of the longest running feature of the credit crunch era as encapsulated by point 12 of my banking crisis time line above.


The issues above are brought into sharper focus if we note this Mario Draghi and the ECB yesterday.

while somewhat weaker than expected

That rather contradicted the by now usual “broad-based expansion” line which was backed up by some misleading analysis of the monetary situation. The minor swerve was the claim that M3 growth had risen by 0.1% which is true but only because August had been revised lower. The more major omission was the absence of a reference to it being 5.1% last September,

So if we add the expected slow down to the already troubled Italian situation we get a clearer idea of the scale of the problem. If we look back we see that GDP growth has been on a quarterly basis 0.3% and then 0.2% so far this year and the Monthly Economic Report tells us this.

The leading indicator is going down slightly suggesting a moderate pace for the next months.

They mean moderate for Italy.So we could easily see 0% growth or even a contraction looking ahead as opposed some of the latest rhetoric suggesting 3%  per year is possible. Perhaps they meant in the next decade as you see that would be an improvement.


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