Will he run or will he not

In the following hours, Italy’s parliament should pass the finance bill and after that Monti will go up to the Quirinale hill to resign..  Right after that, it is now looking likely even though not yet certain, that Mr Monti will run for office in the next parliament. What is not sure yet is with whom. Elections will be held in February 2013

If markets are a good barometer, and they usual are so indeed, Monti will run, and if he runs he has a decent chance to replace himself as the next PM. The Bund /BTP spread has gone back down below 300bps and the FTSE Mib is above 16,000.

Even if Mr Monti does run, the next few months will not be a clear ride, and at these levels of spread and MIB, it may make some sense to take some profits…

Strictly for a non-domestic audience

Here we go again…we will all hear a lot more about Berlusconi in the three months ahead. As we wrote last week, Bersani’s victory seems to have tipped the scales for the Cavaliere to “get back into the field,” as he puts it. Everyone agrees that his chances of victory are incredibly slim, but there will be a lot of noise and a lot of volatility between now and February-March, when elections will be held.

It is still likely that the elections will not give a clear winner, with the top 60% of the votes split between the left, the Grillo movement, and the PDL. The only new negative, further to Monti’s resignations, is Monti’s relationship with the PDL. We thought that Berlusconi’s strategy would have seen the PDL proposing Monti v 2.0 as a ‘super partes’ solution post inconclusive elections, but now that Monti resigned because of the sharp criticism he got from Alfano, it is not entirely clear that the PDL will want to or be able to make that suggestion come the spring…

In the meantime, markets will be nervous, and any opinion poll that shows the PDL edging up will be seen as a risk to the EU and Draghi’s strategy. In the end, this could make Italian bonds and equities buying opportunities, since Berlusconi cannot win, but there will be plenty of volatility in the middle.

Monti’s challenge

Just as we discussed last week, Monti has delivered a tough budget which comprises both tax savings and incentives.

The standard narrative in Italy is that the advent of the Euro saved the Italian economy. Three standard reasons are given: the Lira kept on being targeted by speculators and its peg to the ECU and DM had to be devalued on a semi-regular basis; the conditions for joining the club, which were imposed by the Prodi-Amato administration forced Italian finances to become more virtuous; and finally, the lower cost of borrowing would have allowed the budget deficit and the cost of servicing the stock of debt much lower.

Most of the above benefits did indeed take place for most of the previous decade, which saw record low borrowing rates, primary budget surpluses, and a conservative approach to government spending post the Lehman crisis which meant that Italian finances didn’t appreciably deteriorate after 2008, unlike the United States’ and the UK’s, for example.

However,  and counter intuitively, the price paid for these virtues was a transfer of wealth from the productive areas of society which stopped growing as unit labour costs went up in absolute and relative terms and made Italy less competitive, to the ‘rentiers’, which had lower nominal returns on their fixed income portfolios, but enjoyed an incredible appreciation in the value of their real assets. These effects are easily spotted: Italy barely grew in the last decade, as a strong currency made it less competitive vis a vis not only China, but also Germany, but the price of a square meter of prime real estate in Rome and Milan is now in the same league of London and Paris, and certainly higher than Frankfurt and Berlin.

The fair way to deal with this problem, which we understand Mr. Monti  ‘gets’, is to reduce taxation on the productive part of the economy, by lowering payroll taxes, and making the labour market more flexible, and at the same time taxing big property wealth and increasing the pensionable age. These measures would have a combined effect of reducing youth unemployment, reducing unit labour costs, increasing consumption, and ensuring a degree of fairness to the fiscal adjustment which will improve the chances of it being accepted by the nation.

Non Italian investors will be forgiven for getting bored with the B word…

The question seems to be once again, “Will Berlusconi run again for PM after promising he wouldn’t, then saying he was thinking about it, then denying, and then leaking that he might?” And if does run, why would he do it knowing that the only unknown would be how big the loss is going to be?

The answer to the first question is that Bersani’s triumph in the primaries makes it more likely that he will end up running. The answer to the second question is always the same. Berlusconi doesn’t need to win, he needs to stay relevant not only for his legacy, but also to be able to have something to trade against his legal issues, still unresolved. A good result for Berlusconi would see Grillo and Bersani taking votes from each other and a PDL at between 10-20% in third place that would be able to say, let’s keep Monti for the good of Italy, and by the way, sort out the legal cases.

It is surprising that given this cacophony, the Bund BTP spread is down to 300bps or below. Here there may be two answers. The first is that the market sees through the B ploy and likes the idea of a Monti Bis. The second is that markets are now otherwise preoccupied and haven’t reacted yet…in which case, this spread may have seen its lows at least until mid-next year…