Italian Economics: Watch Salvini

By Jeff Weniger, CFA, WisdomTree Investments

Special to the Financial Independence Hub

In April, the Italian public was so incensed by the country’s broken government budget, endemic graft and unaffordable inward migration that half of the general election vote went to two protest parties. On the left, the Five Star Movement topped all, with 32% support, while the right-wing League party took 18%. Since then, the League has gathered even more support. Its leader, Matteo Salvini, may now be the most powerful person in Italy.

Salvini’s answer to the European Question

With a wave of migration from North Africa and the Middle East in recent years, Italy finds itself dealing with culture clashes and a scramble to find the money to house and feed the new arrivals.

But amid all the talk of the migrant crisis, what has gone largely unnoticed is that both Five Star and the League have some economic policies that are irrational at best, dangerous at worst. With the news cycle focused on cultural issues, we are wise to remember that Salvini, currently positioned as the champion of nativist Italy, has communist roots. His economic belief system has shifted with age, but this is no solace to EUR longs.

Key planks

The coalition government’s common ground includes overturning the Fornero Law, which increased retirement ages, and putting a universal basic income of €780 (C$1,193) per month on the table. However, the coalition does interestingly entertain the idea of a flat tax. All of these together would conspire to blow out Italy’s 2.3% budget deficit-to-GDP ratio.

Positive backdrop

Italy’s 1.4% GDP growth may be anemic, but it is above water, and high by Italian standards; the norm this century is +0.4%. The manufacturing purchasing managers’ index, at 52.7, has essentially been in nonstop expansion since the first quarter of 2015.1 Unemployment is down to a still-troubling 11.1%, but it was nearly 13% in 2014. Investors must ask: what odd fiscal and/or monetary policies will voters demand if conditions become recessionary?

Start with one such policy, which Brussels fears, that is haunting the bond market and EUR.

The specter of a parallel currency

A “New Lira,” side-by-side with the euro. The state will not come out and say it at the moment, but that’s what the proposal for “mini-BOTs” will mean. If Five Star and the League do go down this path, mini-BOTs would be short maturity debt instruments that can be used to state obligations. On the other side of the ledger, owners of the mini-BOTs could use them to pay taxes. This risk has been haunting the bond market and EUR since the idea entered the conversation in mid-May.

For this privilege 

Figure 1 highlights in green the few bonds that yield more than two-year Canadian sovereigns. Australia and the U.S. generally yield more across the board, but investors have to reach for seven-year bonds in Italy to exceed Ottawa’s 2020 maturities.

Figure 1: Sovereign Yields (Highlighted Green if > Canadian Two-Year Government Bond)

Figure 1_Sovereign Yields

December looms

The stated aim of the European Central Bank (ECB) is to “keep prices stable, thereby supporting economic growth and job creation.” But in the last decade, what mattered is its implicit mandate: keep Europe together. The combination of fuzzier European economic data and the potential for Italian mini-BOTs could cause a “dovish” surprise by the ECB’s Mario Draghi, who is set to end the central bank’s €30bn bond purchase program in December.  Perhaps the surprise is an extension of the bloc’s zero interest rate policy for another year or so. That could harm EUR bulls.

European banks not yet indicating Contagion

One way in which European systemic risks can be priced is via bank credit default swaps (CDS). Figure 2 shows current CDS levels along with the peak fear points of the last five years.

Figure 2: CDS Prices, Europe’s Systemically Important Bank Risk vs. Recent Peaks

Figure 2: CDS Prices Europes Systemically Important Bank Risk vs Recent Peaks

UniCredit and Intesa Sanpaolo, the Italian banks, have CDS prices of 148 and 159, respectively, still less than half the June 2013 peaks. Both banks’ spreads are more than double their springtime levels. Spain’s BBVA and Banco Santander also witnessed spikes.

Risk transmission mechanism: The Euro

An avoidable portfolio risk amid the Italian political saga is in euro-denominated securities that are not currency hedged. The euro has dropped nearly 5% against the Canadian dollar since its nearby high on March 19, 2018 (figure 3). There is room for further declines, especially now that Draghi’s announcement of an end to the bond-buying program leaves little prospect for “hawkish” surprises.

Figure 3: CAD per EUR 

Figure 3_EURCAD

Hedging Euro risk

It is far from certain how Italy’s relationship with Common Europe will work out. But allocating to European equities need not entail taking unnecessary risks. Direct exposure to EUR in this environment is unnerving. WisdomTree is known for currency hedging; now may be the time to think about the matter in global allocations.

1Source: Markit. Data as of May 2018.

Jeff Weniger, CFA serves as Asset Allocation Strategist at WisdomTree. Jeff has a background in fundamental, economic and behavioral analysis for strategic and tactical asset allocation. Prior to joining WisdomTree, he was Director, Senior Strategist with BMO from 2006 to 2017, serving on the Asset Allocation Committee and co-managing the firm’s ETF model portfolios. Jeff has a B.S. in Finance from the University of Florida and an MBA from Notre Dame. He is a CFA charter holder and an active member of the CFA Society of Chicago and the CFA Institute since 2006. He has appeared in various financial publications such as Barron’s and the Wall Street Journal and makes regular appearances on Canada’s Business News Network (BNN) and Wharton Business Radio.

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