Category Archives: Euro area crisis

4/6/18: Italy is a TBTF/TBTS Problem for ECB

In my previous post, I talked about the Too-Big-To-Fail Euro state, #Italy - a country with massive debt baggage that is systemic in nature.

Here is Project Syndicate view from Carmen Reinhart:

An interesting graph, charting a combination of the official Government debt and Target 2 deficits accumulated by Italy:

Quote: "With many investors pulling out of Italian assets, capital flight in the more recent data is bound to show up as an even bigger Target2 hole. This debt, unlike pre-1999, pre-euro Italian debt, cannot be inflated away. In this regard, it is much like emerging markets’ dollar-denominated debts: it is either repaid or restructured."

The problem, of course, is the ECB position, as mentioned in my article linked above. It is more than a reputational issue. Restructuring central bank liabilities is easy and relatively painless when it comes to a one-off event within a large system, like the ECB. So no issue with simply ignoring these imbalances from the monetary policy perspective. However, the ECB is a creature of German comfort, and this makes any restructuring (or ignoring) of the Target 2 imbalances a tricky issue for ECB's ability to continue accumulating them vis-a-vis all other debtor states of the euro area. Should a new crisis emerge, the ECB needs stable (non-imploding) Target 2 balance sheet to continue making an argument for sustaining debtor nations. This means not ignoring Italian problem.

Here is the picture mapping out the problem:

Reinhart warns, in my opinion correctly, "In the mildest of scenarios, only Italy’s official debt – held by other governments or international organizations – would be restructured, somewhat limiting the disruptions to financial markets. Yet restructuring official debt may not prove sufficient. Unlike Greece (post-2010), where official creditors held the lion’s share of the debt stock, domestic residents hold most of Italy’s public debt. This places a premium on a strategy that minimizes capital flight (which probably cannot be avoided altogether)."

In other words, as I noted years ago, Italy is a 'Too-Big-To-Fail' and a 'Too-Big-To-Save' or TBTF/TBTS problem for the euro area.

4/6/18: Italy’s Problem is Europe’s Problem

My article on Italian (and Spanish and Dutsche Bank) mess in Sunday Business Post

Unedited version of the article here:

This fortnight has been a real roller-coaster for the European markets and politics. Only two weeks ago, I wrote about the problems of rising political populism in Italy and Spain as the signals of a broader trend across the block’s member states. This week, in Spain a no confidence motion in Mariano Rajoy’s rule played a side show to Rome’s drama.

The timeline of events in Italy provides the background to this week’s lessons.

The country has been governed by a lame-duck executive since mid-2016. Fed up with Rome’s gridlock, in March 2018 general election, Italians endorsed a parliament split between the populist-Left M5S and the far-Right group of parties led by the League. Month and a half of League-M5S negotiations have produced a shared policies platform, replete with radical proposals for reshaping country’s Byzantine tax and social welfare systems. The platform also contained highly controversial proposals to force the ECB to write down EUR250 billion worth of Government debt, a plan for restructuring fiscal rules to allow the country to run larger fiscal deficits, and a call for immigration system reforms.

On Monday, the President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, a loyal Euro supporter, vetoed the League-M5S candidate for the economy ministry, Eurosceptic Paolo Savona. The result was resignation of the League-M5S Prime Minister-designate, Giuseppe Conte, and a threat of an appointment of the unpopular technocrat, Carlo Cottarelli, an ex-IMF economist nicknamed Mr. Scissors for his staunch support for austerity, as a caretaker Prime Minister. By Thursday night, Conte was back in the saddle, with a new coalition Government agreed and set to be sworn in on Friday.

Crisis avoided? Not so fast.

Risk Blow Out

The markets followed the political turns and twists of the drama. On Tuesday, Italian bonds posted their worst daily performance in over 20 years. The spike in the 2-year bond yield was spectacular, going from 0.3 percent on Monday morning to 2.73 percent on Tuesday, before slipping back to 1.26 percent on Thursday. The 10-year Italian bond yield leaped from 2.37 percent to 3.18 percent within the first two days, falling to 2.84 percent a day after.

Source: FT

To put these bond yields’ movements into perspective, at the week’s peak yields, the cost of funding Italian EUR2.256 trillion mountain of Government debt would have risen by EUR45 billion per annum - more than the forecast deficit increases under the reforms proposed in the League-M5S programme.

Thus, despite the immediate crisis yielding to the new Coalition, a heavy cloud of uncertainty still hangs over the Euro area’s third largest member state. Should the new Government fail to deliver on a unified platform built by an inherently unstable coalition, the new election will be on offer. This will likely turn into a plebiscite on Italy’s membership in the Euro. And it will also raise a specter of another markets meltdown.

The Italian Contagion Problem

The lessons from this week’s spike in political uncertainty are three-fold. All are bad for Italy and for the entire euro area. Firstly, after years of QE-induced amnesia, the investment markets are now ready to force huge volatility and rapid risk-repricing into sovereign bonds valuations. Secondly, despite all the talk in Brussels and Rome about the robustness of post-2011 reforms, the Italian economy remains stagnant, incapable of withstanding any significant uptick in the historically-low borrowing costs that prevailed over recent years, with its financial system still vulnerable to shocks. Thirdly, the feared contagion from Italy to the rest of the Eurozone is not a distant echo of the crises past, but a very present danger.

Italy’s debt mountain is the powder keg, ready to explode. The IMF forecasts from April this year envision Italian debt-to-GDP ratio dropping from 131.5 percent at the end of 2017 to 116.6 percent in 2023. However, should the average cost of debt rise just 200 basis points on IMF’s central scenario, hitting 4 percent, the debt ratio is set to rise to 137 percent. This Wednesday bond auction achieved a gross yield of 3 percent on 10-year bonds. In other words, Italy’s fiscal and economic dynamics are unsustainable under a combination of higher risk premia, and the ECB monetary policy normalisation. The risk of the former was playing out this week and will remain in place into 2019. The latter is expected to start around November-December and accelerate thereafter.

With the government crisis unfolding, the probability of Italy leaving the Euro within 12 months, measured by Sentix Italexit index jumped from 3.6 percent at the end of the last week to 12.3 percent this Tuesday before moderating to 11 percent at the end of Thursday. This puts at risk not only Italian Government bonds, but the private sector debt as well, amounting to close to EUR2 trillion. A rise in the cost of this debt, in line with Government debt risk scenarios, will literally sink economy into a recession.

As Italian Government bonds spreads shot up, other European markets started feeling the pain. Based on the data from Deutsche Bank Research, at the start of 2018, foreign banks, non-bank investors and official sector, including the Euro system, held ca 48 percent of the Italian Government debt.  In Spain and Portugal, this number was closer to 65 percent. In other words, the risk of falling bonds prices is both material and broadly distributed across the European financial system for all ‘peripheral’ Euro states.

Source: DB Research

As a part of its quantitative easing program, the ECB has purchased some EUR250 billion worth of Italian bonds. A significant uptick in risk of Italy’s default on these bonds will put political pressure on ECB. Going forward, Frankfurt will face greater political uncertainty in dealing with the future financial and fiscal crises.

Research from the Bank for International Settlements puts Italian banks’ holdings of Government bonds at roughly EUR 450 billion. Ten largest Italian banks have sovereign-debt exposures that exceed their Tier-1 capital. As the value of these bonds plunges, the solvency risks rise too. Not surprisingly, over the last two weeks, shares of the large Italian banks fell 10-20 percent. These declines in equity prices, in turn, are driving solvency risks even higher.

Beyond the Italian banks, French financial institutions held some EUR44 billion worth of Italian bonds, while Spanish banks were exposed to EUR29 billion, according to the European Banking Authority.

The second order effects of the Italian risk contagion play through the other ‘peripheral’ euro area bonds. As events of this week unfolded, in line with Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece have experienced relatively sharp drops in their bonds values. All three are also subject to elevated political uncertainty at home, made more robust by the Italian crisis.

Thus, if the Italian government bond yields head up, banks’ balance sheets risks mount through both, direct exposures to the Italian Government bonds, and indirect effects from Italian contagion on the broader government debt markets, as well as to the private sector lending.

At the end of this week, all indication are that the Italian contagion crisis is receding. The new risk triggers are shifting out into late 2018 and early 2019. The uneasy coalition between two populist moments, the M5S and the League, is unlikely to survive the onslaught of voter dissatisfaction with the state of the economy and continued immigration crisis. At the same time, the coalition will be facing a highly skeptical EU, hell-bent on assuring that M5S-League Government does not achieve much progress on its reforms. All in, the new Government has between six and twelve months to run before we see a new election looming on the horizon.

The Italian crisis might be easing, but it is not going away any time soon. Neither the Spanish one. Oh, and with a major credit downgrade from the Standard & Poor’s and the U.S. Fed, here goes the systemic behemoth of European finance, the Deutsche Bank.

25/5/16: IMF’s Epic Flip Flopping on Greece

IMF published the full Transcript of a Conference Call on Greece from Wednesday, May 25, 2016 (see: And it is simply bizarre.

Let me quote here from the transcript (quotes in black italics) against quotes from the Eurogroup statement last night (available here: Eurogroup statement link) marked with blue text in italics. Emphasis in bold is mine

On debt, I certainly think that we have made progress, Europe is making progress. Debt relief is firmly on the agenda now. Our European partners and all the other stakeholders all now recognize that Greece debt is unsustainable, is highly unsustainable, they accept that debt relief is needed.

Do they? Let’s take a look at the Eurogroup official statement:

Is debt relief firmly on the agenda and does Eurogroup 'accept that debt relief is needed'? "The Eurogroup agrees to assess debt sustainability" Note: the Eurogroup did not agree to deliver debt relief, but simply to assess it. Which might put debt relief on the agenda, but it is hardly a meaningful commitment, as similar promises were made before, not only for Greece, but also for other peripheral states.

Does Eurogroup "recognize that Greece debt is unsustainable, is highly unsustainable"? No. There is no mentioning of words 'unsustainable' or 'highly unsustainable' in the Eurogroup document. None. Nada. Instead, here is what the Eurogroup says about the extent of Greek debt sustainability: "The Eurogroup recognises that over the exceptionally long time horizon of assessing debt sustainability there can be no forecasts, only assumptions, given the sizable degree of uncertainty over macroeconomic developments." Does this sound to you like the Eurogroup recognized 'highly unsustainable' nature of Greek debt? Not to me...

Furthermore, relating to debt relief measures, the Eurogroup notes: “For the medium term, the Eurogroup expects to implement a possible second set of measures following the successful implementation of the ESM programme. These measures will be implemented if an update of the debt sustainability analysis produced by the institutions at the end of the programme shows they are needed to meet the agreed GFN benchmark, subject to a positive assessment from the institutions and the Eurogroup on programme implementation.” Again, there is no admission by the Eurogroup of unsustainable nature of Greek debt, and in fact there is a statement that only 'if' debt is deemed to be unsustainable at the medium-term future, then debt relief measures can be contemplated as possible. This neither amounts to (1) statement that does not agree with the IMF assertion that the Eurogroup realizes unsustainable nature of Greek debt burden; and (2) statement that does not agree with the IMF assertion that the Eurogroup put debt relief 'firmly on the table'.

More per IMF: Eurogroup “…accept the methodology that should be used to calibrate the necessary debt relief. They accept the objectives in terms of the gross financing need in the near term and in the long run. They even accept the time periods, a very long time period, over which this debt has to be met through 2060. And I think they are also beginning to accept more realism in the assumption.

Again, do they? Let’s go back to the Eurogroup statement: “The Eurogroup recognises that over the exceptionally long time horizon of assessing debt sustainability there can be no forecasts, only assumptions, given the sizable degree of uncertainty over macroeconomic developments.” Have the Eurogroup accepted IMF’s assumptions? No. It simply said that things might change and if they do, well, then we’ll get back to you.

Things get worse from there on.

IMF: “We have not changed our view on how the outlook for debt is looking. We have not gone back. We want to assure you that we will not want big primary surpluses.” This statement, of course, refers to the IMF stating (see here) that Greek primary surpluses of 3.5% assumed under the DSA for Bailout 3.0 were unrealistic. And yet, quoting the Eurogroup document: the new agreement “provides further reassurances that Greece will meet the primary surplus targets of the ESM programme (3.5% of GDP in the medium-term), without prejudice to the obligations of Greece under the SGP and the Fiscal Compact.”  So, IMF says it did not surrender on 3.5% primary surplus for Greece being unrealistic, yet Eurogroup says 3.5% target is here to stay. Who’s spinning what?

IMF: “...I cannot see us facing this on a primary surplus that is above 1.5 [ percent of GDP]. I know it's just not credible in our view. And you will see that there is nothing in the European statement anymore that says 3.5 should be used for the DSA. So there, too, Europe is moving.” As I just quoted from the eurogroup statement clearly saying 3.5% surplus is staying.

IMF is again tangled up in long tales of courage played against short strides to surrender. PR balancing, face-savings, twisting, turning, obscuring… you name it, the IMF got it going here.

4/3/16: Can Cryan halt Deutsche Bank’s decline? Euromoney

Recently, I wrote about the multiple problems faced by the Deutsche Bank (see post here

Subsequently, Euromoney published a well-researched and wide-ranging article on the same subjects that is also worth reading, even though there are quite significant overlaps with my earlier post: