Italian banks becoming part of the solution?

For a long time Italian banks have been the scare of the Eurozone. In particular, their mountain of NPLs, usually not properly covered by adequate reserves, have been a Damocles sword on top of European technocrats. However, the recent swift, bail-out of the venetian banks and MPS has suddenly taken a weight off the sector. Italian bank shares are up over 25% year to date, and problem cases are now much more manageable. Of course, there is still the problem that on top of the mountain of NPLs there is an even taller pile of UTPs (acronym for unlikely to pay…), which are essentially NPLs in gestation. If the economy picks up steam, and the banks continue to work through their NPLs, it is still possible that the UTPs will not become the next ticking bomb for the Eurozone. The markets have turned bullish, we shall see…

The Macron Effect

President Macron is increasingly looking like a modern Roi Soleil. He is now meeting foreign visitors and holding parliament meetings in Versailles. This is probably not a bad thing as long as he utilises France’s attempt at regaining ‘grandeur’ to make the necessary reforms at home. He seems to be inclined to hit the ground running with labour laws reform… Let’s see how he deals with the inevitable street demonstrations that will certainly happen.

Brrrr-Exit

If the Brits finally decide to leave, as the most recent polls seem to suggest, it will be due to three main factors. The first is the miscalculation that EU core countries, and Germany in particular, have made in continuing to push for a Frankfurt/Berlin centric fiscal policy. The second is how Europe has quickly become a scapegoat for inefficiencies, a feeling that is partially true and due to multiple level of government that obviously costs more and takes more time. Finally, we have reached this low point in political strategy, as a result of a colossal miscalculation of David Cameron.

The problem with British leaders, unlike some continental ones,  is that they will admit a loss when it happens, and he will have to resign if he loses the referendum. In this case, brace for volatility.

Italy’s local elections

Matteo Renzi didn’t lose the local elections but he also didn’t ‘super win’ like he did in last year’s European polls. The reasons why he did…OK…but not great, are probably not due to him, but a  combination of the resuscitation of the Italian far right and part of a wider European malaise.

With Berlusconi’s semi-demise, Renzi was left for a couple of years to be the only kid on the block. Now Italians have found the right wing version of Renzi in Mr. Salvini, leader of the Northern league, a young populist politician widely reputed to have far right views.

 Mr. Salvini’s party platform has borrowed planks from a collection of European reactionary parties, including Podemos, Syriza, Front National, UKIP. The difference with the situation in Italy and Britain, though is that Italy’s still very proportional electoral system will give Salvini a lot of MPs in the next elections and he will be a force to be reckoned with.

Come the next general elections, it is likely that it will be a two way fight between Renzi and Salvini, with Grillo’s M5S as a possible party spoiler. Renzi and many Italians may at that point start missing Mr. Berlusconi….

The grass is always greener….

As someone who has an interest in comparative electoral systems, I couldn’t help being so favourably impressed by the outcome of the British election and its electoral system. The campaign lasts one month, the elections one day, by the end of the night of the elections the winner is known. The next day the prime minister goes to the Queen, and goes, or comes back, to 10 Downing Street. In the meantime, the losers accept their failure and resign. Compare this to what happens in Italy or Israel, for instance. In both countries electoral campaigns are a lengthy affair that sometimes starts the day after the elections; the losers complain but don’t resign, the winners squabble for the spoils of victory. In fact in Israel this spoils system is even more voracious and obnoxious than almost anywhere else. The coalition is formed not before the elections but after the elections and every party have exorbitant requests, cross vetoes, last hour blackmail etc. Bottom line, Bibi Netanyahu was only able to form his coalition seven weeks after winning the elections, Cameron did it seven hours after the elections. Whose electoral system would you rather have?

 The question is not as simple as it looks, because the downside of the clear cut civility of the British system is very harsh on the losers, who may get a very high share of the electoral vote and almost no representation in parliament—go speak to Farage for example (the leader of the UKIP). Serious publications such as the Economist have been advocating the introduction of some proportional representation into the British system. Despite its drawdowns–no system is perfect, Brits should think twice before giving up their current system which guarantees a civil transfer of power, accountability, and certainty, for a Levantine correction that engenders unending discussions and very often extortion.

The View from Germany

Press rumours are speculating about the creation of a wider rift between the head of the ECB, Mario Draghi, and Mr.Weidmann, the formal Merkel advisor currently head of the Bundesbank. Whatever the specific motives of the alleged breakdown in their relationship, this personal issue has wider ECB and pan European implications. Simply put, France, Italy and the other weaker EU countries believe that without fiscal stimulus there is no getting out of this painful and prolonged recession. Draghi has done ‘all he could’ with conventional monetary policy and now, in the absence of fiscal stimulus which is constrained by the EU budget rules (i.e. to stay within 3% limit), is beginning to do, at least in Germany’s view, more than he should.

Renzi and Valls’ point of view is widely known: too much continued austerity is killing the patient. They argue that now that both France and Italy have governments which appear serious on reforming, they should be given the slack to enact countercyclical measures that will result in a widening of budget deficits in the short term, but in a sustained recovery in the medium term.

The problem is Germany has seen all of this before, and from their point of view, they need to see real action on the ground of labour reforms, spending cuts, etc. before agreeing to any more stimulus measures. With regards to the unconventional monetary policy steps that Draghi is beginning to embark upon, the Germans are not happy at all. Rock bottom interest rates, negative in certain instances, are hurting both savers and corporates; the idea of the ECB starting to buy structured products is equally scary to them.

As always, the solution will have to be political. France and Italy will have to do more real action on the ground to nudge Germany to reluctantly agree to fiscal stimulus such as widening budget deficits…most will agree that monetary policy has done all it could in this cycle.

Putin, ISIS and the Central Bankers

You wouldn’t necessarily think that Ms. Yellen and Mario Draghi could be a good match for Putin and the Islamic State thugs, but incredible things are happening in the markets.

The geopolitical situation in Europe is as at least as bad as at the time of the Soviet-Afghanistan war: Russia and Ukraine are at war, the Arab world is upside down, from Libya to Egypt, from Syria to Afghanistan, even ignoring little Gaza, the situation is literally explosive. Old strongmen have been replaced by bloodthirsty fanatics with huge resources and even larger ambitions.

In the middle of this mayhem, you would expect the markets to worry, right? Wrong. The markets are now in an incredible situation where bad news is good news. Meaning, the more bad news the longer the central banks will continue to accommodate, which is bullish for asset prices. The question is when this mechanism will end.

Until then, investors seem to load up on all asset classes, with negative Eonias, Italy trading through Treasuries and London and New York property prices on a one-way street.

 

Not missing the opportunity

After over a decade of stagnation and recession, Italy finally has an opportunity to change gear and turn the wheel towards a period of sustainable growth. Most of Europe and the main western economies have by now recouped the GDP loss derived from the financial crisis of 2008-09. Real estate values, the initial ‘culprits’ of the crisis, are back or above their 2007 high water mark in many western capitals. Not so Italy, where real estate prices are still hovering at the bottom, 30-40% below previous highs. Both London and New York have seen foreigners among the largest buyers of premium real estate. It is likely that Italy will follow when foreign investors will see that Rome and Milan trade at an unusual discount to other western capitals—another form of ‘spread’. One reason for this is due to the low foreign direct investment of the last 5 years. The government should work hard to reverse this issue. The news of last week that an American company decided against investing in Italy because of its fear that its patents wouldn’t be protected in Italy due to the lengthy civil litigation processes are not a good sign. Renzi has a lot to do, but he should instruct his justice minister to look very seriously into a dramatic fix to Italy’s notoriously inefficient civil justice system. If foreign investors cannot trust Italy to protect their IP, they will vote with their feet and move elsewhere.

Tax and labour laws condemn Italy to Sluggish Economy

Imagine a medium sized service company which has been making a small pre-tax profit in virtually all the last six years but that has declared a loss after tax every year, due to taxes on turnover rather than profits. Imagine an employee in this same company which has over 15 employees and is therefore not able to dismiss employees for almost any reason that has been suffering of a psychological condition that no doctor or hospital has been able to diagnose, and who has been on sick leave for about 180 days in each of the past two years. The law says that after 180 days of sick leave in a calendar year, the company can dismiss the employee. However, in practice the employer that takes advantage of this law may risk a countersuit by the employee stating that the condition was due to his working conditions and could conceivably ask for his ‘job’ back and compensation!

These facts that do take place in Italy are the main reasons why Italy is condemning itself to sub-par growth, or actually no growth at all, and inevitable un-competitiveness vis a vis its peers in Europe. There are no other reasons for Italy’s condition. Italians are in general hardworking, talented, creative, and elegant. Their cars, furniture, boats, jewellery are among the best in the world. As an industrial power, Italy is only second to Germany in Europe, and yet, its position is sliding by the day. We heard from a respected accounting firm that most of their non-routine assignments in the last twelve months have been managing liquidations of companies that have given up on Italy, and sometime simply close in Italy and re-open in Switzerland, Eastern Europe, or the Far East. Some even go to North Africa, despite the political uncertainty.

Until Italy’s politicians come to term with these basic facts, all their measures including this year’s stability bill are only going to be a drop in the ocean. Italy needs structural reforms in taxation and labour laws that will enable it to compete with its western peers, without needing to dismantle completely the welfare state, but by addressing the poor allocation of priorities and resources, chiefly imposed by the labour unions whose mandate is to keep the (poorly paid) jobs that are in place and not create new, better paying jobs for the young and unemployed.

Italy, what a mess once again!

Let’s go back a couple of years. Europe’s problem countries used to be nicknamed the PIGS (Standing for Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain). Shortly thereafter, an extra “I” was added to make it PIIGS and include Italy. It is now fair to say that all the PIGS have acknowledged their problems, negotiated a track to come back to fiscal sanity, and are more or less coming back. Even Greece, with its clampdown on the neo-Nazi party seems to be slowly but surely coming to terms with its issues not only economically, but also politically.

Unfortunately, Italy seems to be following its own route which bifurcates; economic policy is on a sound track, thanks to Monti, Letta, Saccomanni, Draghi, while politics is still in the ice age. It is very disappointing that neither Monti nor Letta have been able to propose to parliament a draft new election law in the last two years, and it is no wonder that the initiative is now with the 5-Star movement who says it has published its own draft, but is clearly quite happy with the current version. Except that it is quite likely that towards the end of the year the Supreme Court will rule that law, the famed porcellum, unconstitutional. Add to this that Berlusconi would like elections this year, and that his party appears to be fracturing, and you understand why Italy is in chaos.

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