As I continue to focus on some of the upheaval and implications of the populism that is sweeping the US and Europe, this briefing will focus on the political risk posed by Italy and the corresponding investment climate.
The Italian economy is struggling. Total GDP is still lower today than it was in 2008, pre financial crisis. Italy Government Debt to GDP in 2016 was 132% (the highest it’s ever been), youth unemployment is projected at greater than 40% and Italy experienced an entire year of deflation in 2016, its’ first in 70 years. Contributing to the challenge is a low birth rate (lowest since the state was founded in 1861), and a historic focus on low cost manufacturing that is increasingly being moved to more competitive cost environments (e.g., China). There are large questions of whether Italy’s businesses are keeping pace and innovating with the rest of the world. Enter Italy’s fragile banking system, with more than 331bn in Non-Performing Loans in 2016 (more than 21.4% of loans are bad) and some of the weakest global banks in the world. “As Italy and Europe more broadly struggle to come to grips with an escalating problem with bad loans, a new paper by economists connected to the Center for Economic Policy Research, highlights the extent to which Italy’s main banks — known to be the weakest in the Eurozone in terms of cash reserves — have stepped up their lending to the country’s most troubled companies”.
Potential future stresses on the Italian financial system are not unforeseeable. It was just four years ago when the 2012 Eurozone crisis occurred and Italian CDS spiked to near 700 making the feedback loop between sovereign debt and banking institutions not completely in the rear-view mirror. Do Italy’s political institution’s (and the greater European system) have the capacity and resiliency to weather a future potential banking/debt crisis?
While the world is watching the drama of the French, German and Dutch election (and processing the after-shocks of Brexit). Italy is dealing with its own unique soap opera that has substantially reduced the political capacity of its governmental institutions to address a fiscal crisis. Matteo Renzi, the young charismatic leader who attempted to pursue through a referendum, was dealt a blow in December 2016 after voters “dismissed his plans for constitutional reform in a crushing referendum that saw close to 60% of voters opt for no”. Renzi would later resign after the referendum loss dismantling his left-right coalition. While Italy attempts to pick up the pieces, Sergio Mattarella, the current president, is facing calls to have an early election well in advance of the planned May 2018 date. Recently, Italy’s constitutional court revised parts of law approved by Renzi that raised the chance of early elections this year (which may also result in one-round of voting vs. two rounds). Adding fuel to calls for an early election are Renzi’s Democratic Party and the anti-establishment populist Five Star Movement (M5S). Rising in popularity the M5S now nearly garners 30% of the vote in a mock election, is an increasing force in Italian politics, and is in a virtual dead heat with Renzi’s Democratic Party. Part of the puzzle will be whether the M5S can garner enough votes to offset the requirement to have 40% majority vote (favoring political groups such as PD who are more likely to form a coalition). The M5S has the potential to shake up Italian politics significantly, furthering the populist trends across Europe. While this is going on, there is still a debate of whether Renzi will maintain his positioning with PD (as party lead) after his resignation and whether the traditional political parties will further fragment.
Who is the M5S?
Founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo and web strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio, the party was based on “the twin ideas of a new form of direct democracy and popular disgust with the political elites,” according to politics professor James Newall. Most of the leadership from the M5S, comes from the left, but it has picked up voters in both directions with voters who are generally disenfranchised with the status quo. The party’s platform is based on five issues: publicly owned water, sustainable (eco-friendly) transport, sustainable development, right to internet access, and environmentalism. The party’s policies don’t fit traditional political parties. It has a flavor of anti-establishment, anti-immigration, pro-green and is overall skeptical of the European Project. Recent successes in the 2013 election, garnered more than 100 seats for the M5S, including the Mayor of Rome. Some of this has not been without growing pains, including 18 resignations and a rocky start for the Mayor of Rome (she has been rocked by a scandal with over 4 resignations).
So what’s the call?
MP5 will win in an early election (one-round of voting) and have enough votes to govern as Italians are seeking a change and are more willing to vote for a change than present circumstances. This will follow populist trends across Europe.
- MP5 will win the election and have enough of majority to govern (40%)
- MP5 will win the highest percentage of votes but will fall short of a governing %. PD will form a coalition with the right and Renzi will be back in power. This occurs in two rounds of voting. (35%)
- PD will win the highest percentage of votes and form a coalition government with the right. This occurs in round of voting (this occurs in the second round). (20%)
Outcomes (for the most likely scenario and our call)
- MP5 will pursue an agenda on a wide eclectic range of issues, none of which are focused on fixing governance issues with the Italian governmental system, or addressing the underlying challenges in the banking system.
- MP5 will underestimate the complexity in governing a large country leading to some rocky steps in the first 100 days of their administration. This will lead to a reduction of market confidence in Italy’s ability to sustain high debt to GDP ratio, and provide private/public solutions to banking system issues.
- All the while, the ECB and other European governmental actors will have a full plate. Dealing with the fall-out of other European crises (e.g., Brexit, French elections, Greece etc.)
Italian asset classes will under-perform broader European countries, as well as other developed countries around the world. Until additional political stability is achieved, many of the necessary solutions to address fundamental economic challenges will not be possible. Other countries in Europe should be explored for investment opportunities.