The Brexit vote has caused shockwaves throughout European economies. But there is a potentially larger economic and political problem facing the EU and the eurozone more specifically. And that is the state of the Italian banking system and the Italian economy.
Italy is the third largest economy in the eurozone after Germany and France. Any serious economic weaknesses could have profound consequences for the rest of the eurozone and beyond.
At 135% of GDP, Italy’s public-sector debt is one the highest in the world; its banks are undercapitalised with a high proportion of bad debt; and it is still struggling to recover from the crisis of 2008–9. The Economist article elaborates:
The adult employment rate is lower than in any EU country bar Greece. The economy has been moribund for years, suffocated by over-regulation and feeble productivity. Amid stagnation and deflation, Italy’s banks are in deep trouble, burdened by some €360 billion of souring loans, the equivalent of a fifth of the country’s GDP. Collectively they have provisioned for only 45% of that amount. At best, Italy’s weak banks will throttle the country’s growth; at worst, some will go bust.
Since 2007, the economy has shrunk by 10%. And potential output has fallen too, as firms have closed. Unemployment is over 11%, with youth unemployment around 40%.
Things seem to be coming to a head. As confidence in the Italian banking system plummets, the Italian government would like to bail out the banks to try to restore confidence and encourage deposits and lending. But under new eurozone rules designed to protect taxpayers, it requires that the first line of support should be from bondholders. Such support is known as a ‘bail-in’.
If bondholders were large institutional investors, this might not be such a problem, but a significant proportion of bank bonds in Italy are held by small investors, encouraged to do so by tax relief. Bailing in the banks by requiring bondholders to bear significant losses in the value of their bonds could undermine the savings of many Italians and cause them severe hardship, especially those who had saved for their retirement.
So what is the solution? Italian banks need recapitalising to restore confidence and prevent a more serious crisis. However, there is limited scope for bailing in, unless small investors can be protected. And eurozone rules provide little scope for government funding for the banks. These rules should be relaxed under extreme circumstances. At the same time, policy needs to focus on making Italian banking more efficient.
Meanwhile, the IMF is forecasting that Italian economic growth will be less than 1% this year and little better in 2017. Part of the problem, claims the IMF, is the Brexit vote. This has heightened financial market volatility and increasead the risks for Italy with its fragile banking system. But the problems of the Italian economy run deeper and will require various supply-side policies to tackle low productivity, corruption, public-sector inefficiency and a financial system not fit for purpose. What the mix of these policies should be – whether market based or interventionist – is not just a question of effectiveness, but of political viability and democratic support.
The Italian Job The Economist (9/7/16)
IMF warns Italy of two-decade-long recessionThe Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/7/16)
Italy economy: IMF says country has ‘two lost decades’ of growth BBC News (12/7/16)
What’s the problem with Italian banks? BBC News, Andrew Walker (10/7/16)
Why Italy’s banking crisis will shake the eurozone to its core The Telegraph, Tim Wallace Szu Ping Chan (16/8/16)
If You Thought Brexit Was Bad Wait Until The Italian Banks All Go Bust Forbes, Tim Worstall (17/7/16)
In the euro zone’s latest crisis, Italy is torn between saving the banks or saving its people Quartz, Cassie Werber (13/7/16)
Why Italy could be the next European country to face an economic crisis Vox, Timothy B. Lee (8/7/16)
Forget Brexit, Quitaly is Europe’s next worry The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/7/16)
Italy IMF Country Report No. 16/222 (July 2016)
Economic Outlook OECD (June 2016) (select ‘By country’ from the left-hand panel and then choose ‘Italy’ from the pull-down menu and choose appropriate time series)
- Can changes in aggregate demand have supply-side consequences? Explain.
- Explain why there may be a downward spiral of asset sales by banks.
- How might the principle of bail-ins for undercapitalised Italian banks be pursued without being at the expense of the small saver?
- What lessons are there from Japan’s ‘three arrows’ for Italy? Does being in the eurozone constrain Italy’s ability to adopt any or all of these three categories of policy?
- Why may the Brexit vote have more serious consequences for Italy than many other European economies?
- Find out what reforms have already been adopted or are being pursued by the Italian government. How successful are they likely to be in increasing Italian growth and productivity?
- What external factors are currently (a) favourable, (b) unfavourable to improving Italian growth and productivity?
The eurozone is made up of 18 countries (19 in January) and, besides sharing a common currency, they also seem to be sharing the trait of weak economic performance. The key macroeconomic variables across the eurozone nations have all seemingly been moving in the wrong direction and this is causing a lot of concern for policy-makers.
Some of the biggest players in the eurozone have seen economic growth on the down-turn, unemployment rising and consumer and business confidence falling once again. Germany’s economic growth has been revised down and in Italy, unemployment rose to a record of 13.2% in September and around 25% of the workforce remains out of work in Spain and Greece. A significant consequence of the sluggish growth across this 18-nation bloc of countries is the growing risk of deflation.
Whilst low and stable inflation is a macroeconomic objective across nations, there is such a thing as inflation that is too low. When inflation approaches 0%, the spectre of deflation looms large (see the blog post Deflation danger). The problem of deflation is that when people expect prices to fall, they stop spending. As such, consumption falls and this puts downward pressure on aggregate demand. After all, if you think prices will be lower next week, then you are likely to wait until next week. This decision by consumers will cause aggregate demand to shift to the left, thus pushing national income down, creating higher unemployment. If this expectation continues, then so will the inward shifts in AD. This is the problem facing the eurozone. In November, the inflation rate fell to 0.3%. One of the key causes is falling energy prices – normally good news, but not if inflation is already too low.
Jonathan Loynes, Chief European Economist at Capital Economics said:
“[the inflation and jobless data] gives the ECB yet another nudge to take urgent further action to revive the recovery and tackle the threat of deflation…We now expect the headline inflation rate to drop below zero at least briefly over the next six months and there is a clear danger of a more prolonged bout of falling prices.”
Some may see the lower prices as a positive change, with less household income being needed to buy the same basket of goods. However, the key question will be whether such low prices are seen as a temporary change or an indication of a longer-term trend. The answer to the question will have a significant effect on business decisions about investment and on the next steps to be taken by the ECB. It also has big consequences for other countries, in particular the UK. The data over the coming months across a range of macroeconomic variables may tell us a lot about what is to come throughout 2015. The following articles consider the eurozone data.
Euro area annual inflation down to 0.3% EuroStat News Release (28/11/14)
Eurozone inflation weakens again, adding pressure on ECB Nasdaq, Brian Blackstone (28/11/14)
Eurozone inflation rate falls in October BBC News (28/11/14)
Eurozone recovery fears weigh on UK plc, says report Financial Times, Alison Smith (30/11/14)
€300bn Jean-Claude Juncker Eurozone kickstarter sounds too good to be true The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/11/14)
Eurozone area may be in ‘persistent stagnation trap’ says OECD BBC News (25/11/14)
Euro area ‘major risk to world growth’: OECD CNBC, Katy Barnato (25/11/14)
OECD sees gradual world recovery, urges ECB to do more Reuters, Ingrid Melander (25/11/14)
- What is deflation and why is it such a concern?
- Illustrate the impact of falling consumer demand in an AD/AS diagram.
- What policies are available to the ECB to tackle the problem of deflation? How successful are they likely to be and which factors will determine this?
- To what extent is the economic stagnation in the Eurozone a cause for concern to countries such as the UK and US? Explain your answer.
- How effective would quantitative easing be in combating the problem of deflation?
Well they say that a day is a long-time in politics – that an awful lot can happen within 24 hours. The two days of the G20 summit have seemed like a lifetime. The meeting took place in Cannes from 3 to 4 November, 2011. It was the sixth such meeting of the G20: the 19 largest developed and developing countries plus the European Union.
As chair of the meeting, President Sarkozy of France had planned to address the two key global issues of securing a sustained global recovery and strengthening the global banking system. He also wanted to address other issues, such as climate change, commodity price volatility, social inclusion, corruption and corporate governance. But although these issues are covered in the final communiqué, what took centre-stage for the whole summit was the crisis in Greece and its impact on the eurozone.
The drama began on Monday 31 October. The Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou, decided to call a referendum on the agreement reached at the eurozone summit in Brussels the previous week. In return for banks being required to take a loss of 50% in converting existing Greek bonds into new ones, Greece would have to continue with its tough austerity measures: measures that have caused the Greek economy to implode.
With worries that (a) the referendum would create several weeks of uncertainty, (b) that the agreement might then be rejected, (c) that the government might fall, stock markets plunged. French and German markets fell by over 5%. The Athens stock market fell by 7 per cent. The yield on Italian bonds passed 6%, amidst fears that if Greece defaulted, so too might Italy. But if the eurozone could survive a Greek default, it might not survive an Italian one. Even though several members of Mr. Papandreou’s Pasok party demanded his resignation, he stuck to his guns that an agreement had to have the consent of the Greek people. That was Tuesday.
The next day, Wednesday, was the start of the two-day G20 conference. What was to have been a meeting addressing wider issues of the global economy, was now having to focus on the Greek crisis. President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel made it clear that the next tranche of bailout money to Greece would not be paid until the deal agreed in Brussels was accepted by Greece. They gave the first indications that they might accept Greece’s withdrawal from the eurozone.
On Thursday afternoon, Mr Papandreou signalled that he would back down from the referendum if the opposition New Democracy party would join him in supporting the Brussels deal. He would not resign. But the opposition leader, Antonis Samaras, said that his party would not join with Mr Papandreou and that the Prime Minister should indeed resign. He did not resign, but abandoned the calll for a referendum.
With the Greek crisis dominating the meeting, little concrete agreement was reached. One important outcome, however, was the recognition that the financing of the IMF should be strengthened. As the final communiqué states:
We will ensure the IMF continues to have resources to play its systemic role to the benefit of its whole membership, building on the substantial resources we have already mobilized since London in 2009. We stand ready to ensure additional resources could be mobilised in a timely manner and ask our finance ministers by their next meeting to work on deploying a range of various options including bilateral contributions to the IMF, SDRs, and voluntary contributions to an IMF special structure such as an administered account. We will expeditiously implement in full the 2010 quota and governance reform of the IMF.
But despite this recognition of the key role of the IMF, the agreement was essentially that an agreement would be needed!
Eurozone crisis: yet another twist to Greek farce keeps leaders on edge of seats The Telegraph (4/11/11)
G20 summit: the main issues at Cannes The Telegraph (3/11/11)
Quick! More sandbags (filled with cash) The Economist, Charlemagne’s notebook (4/11/11)
The burning fuse The Economist, Charlemagne’s notebook (4/11/11)
G20 leaders agree to boost IMF resources BBC News (4/11/11)
G20 summit fails to allay world recession fears Guardian, Patrick Wintour and Larry Elliott (4/11/11)
G20 summit: roll call of doom for a dysfunctional family Guardian, Angelique Chrisafis (3/11/11)
Euro zone finds no new money for debt crisis at G20 The Economic Times of India (4/11/11)
Shares jump after referendum ditched New Zealand Herald (5/11/11)
Bunds rise on EFSF worries, Italy under pressure Reuters (4/11/11)
Eurozone crisis: The possible resolutions BBC News (4/11/11)
The G20 aren’t running to Europe’s rescue BBC News blogs, Stephanie Flanders (4/11/11)
Is the euro about to capsize? BBC News, Laurence Knight (4/11/11)
Meeting of Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors: final communiqué G20–G8 France 2011 (4/11/11)
- Why might the ‘game’ between the eurozone leaders and George Papandreou be seen as a prisoner’s dilemma game? What are the payoffs?
- Why might increasing the bailout for Greece represent a moral hazard for the eurozone leaders?
- Trace through market reactions between the 31 October and the 4 November and explain the movements.
- How crucial is the IMF in achieving global stability and economic growth?
- Assess the success of the Cannes G20 conference.
As European leaders gather for an emergency summit in Brussels to tackle the eurozone debt crisis, we consider the issues and possible solutions. In Part B we’ll consider the actual agreement.
There are three key short-term issues that the leaders are addressing.
1. The problem of Greek debt
With fears that the Greek debt crisis could spread to other eurozone countries, such as Italy and Spain, it is vital to have a solution to the unsustainability of Greek debt. Either banks must be willing to write off a proportion of Greek debt owed to them or governments must give a fiscal transfer to Greece to allow it to continue servicing the debt. Simply lending Greece even more provides no long-term solution as this will simply make the debt even harder to service. Writing off a given percentage of debt is known as a ‘haircut’. The haircut on offer before the summit was 21%. Leaders are reportedly considering increasing this to around 60%
2. The size of the eurozone bailout fund
The bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), stood at €440 billion. This is considered totally inadequate to provide loans to Italy and Spain, should they need a bailout. France and other countries want the ECB to provide extra loans to the EFSF, to increase its funds to somewhere between €2 trillion and €3 trillion. Germany before the meeting was strongly against this, seeing it as undermining the rectitude of the ECB. A compromise would be for the EFSF to provide partial guarantees to investors and banks which are willing to lend more to countries in debt crisis.
3. Recapitalising various European banks
Several European banks are heavily exposed to sovereign debt in countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain. It is estimated that they would need to raise an extra €100 billion to shield them against possible losses from haircuts and defaults.
But there is the key longer-term issue as well.
Achieving long-term economic growth
Without economic growth, debt servicing becomes much more difficult. The austerity measures imposed on highly indebted countries amount to strongly contractionary fiscal policies, as government expenditure is cut and taxes are increased. But as the economies contract, so automatic fiscal stabilisers come into play. As incomes and expenditure decline, so people pay less income tax and less VAT and other expenditure taxes; as incomes decline and unemployment rises, so government welfare payments and payments of unemployment benefits increase. These compound public-sector deficits and bring the possibility of even stronger austerity measures. A downward spiral of decline and rising debt can occur.
The answer is more rapid growth. But how is that to be achieved when governments are trying to reduce debt? That is the hardest and ultimately the most important question.
Brussels summit: the main issues to be resolved The Telegraph (25/10/11)
EU crisis talks in limbo after crucial summit is cancelled The Telegraph, Louise Armitstead (25/10/11)
Euro zone summit likely to give few numbers on crisis response Reuters, Jan Strupczewski (25/10/11)
Factbox: What EU leaders must decide at crisis summit Reuters (24/10/11)
Hopes low ahead of EU summit Euronews on YouTube (25/10/11)
Euro crisis: EU leaders hope to reach debt plan BBC News (26/10/11)
The deadline Europe cannot afford to miss BBC News, Nigel Cassidy (26/10/11)
Why EU summit is crunch day for the eurozone BBC News, Paul Mason (26/10/11)
Southern European banks need most capital BBC News blogs, Robert Peston (23/10/11)
Will Germany insure Italy against default? BBC News blogs, Robert Peston (26/10/11)
Plan B for the eurozone? BBC News blogs, Stephanie Flanders (26/10/11)
‘No such thing as Europe’ BBC Today Programme, Stephanie Flanders and Martin Wolf (26/10/11)
Markets to eurozone: It’s the growth, stupid BBC News blogs, Stephanie Flanders (24/10/11)
Fears euro summit could miss final deal Financial Times, Peter Spiegel, Gerrit Wiesmann and Matt Steinglass (26/10/11)
Time to unleash financial firepower or face euro breakup Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/10/11)
The Business podcast: eurozone crisis Guardian, Larry Elliott, David Gow and Jill Treanor (25/10/11)
Why is Germany refusing to budge on the eurozone debt crisis? Guardian blogs, Phillip Inman (26/10/11)
- In terms of the three short-term problems identified above, compare alternative measures for dealing with each one.
- To what extent would the ECB creating enough money to recapitalise European banks be inflationary? On what factors does this depend?
- Does bailing out countries create a moral hazard? Explain.
- What possible ways are there of achieving economic growth while reducing countries sovereign debt?
- Would you agree that the problem facing eurozone countries at the moment is more of a political one than an economic one? Explain.
- What are the arguments for and against greater fiscal integration in the eurozone?
The debts of many countries in the eurozone are becoming increasingly difficult to service. With negative growth in some countries (Greece’s GDP is set to decline by over 5% this year) and falling growth rates in others, the outlook is becoming worse: tax revenues are likely to fall and benefit payments are likely to increase as automatic fiscal stabilisers take effect. In the light of these difficulties, market rates of interest on sovereign debt in these countries have been increasing.
Talk of default has got louder. If Greece cannot service its public-sector debt, currently standing at around 150% of GDP (way above the 60% ceiling set in the Stability and Growth Pact), then simply lending it more will merely delay the problem. Ultimately, if it cannot grow its way out of the debt, then either it must receive a fiscal transfer from the rest of the eurozone, or part of its debts must be cancelled or radically rescheduled.
But Greece is a small country, and relative to the size of the whole eurozone’s GDP, its debt is tiny. Italy is another matter. It’s public-sector debt to GDP ratio, at around 120% is lower than Greece’s, but the level of debt is much higher: $2 trillion compared with Greece’s $480 billion. Increasingly banks are becoming worried about their exposure to Italian debt – both public- and private-sector debt.
As we saw in the news item “The brutal face of supply and demand”, stock markets have been plummeting because of the growing fears about debts in the eurozone. And these fears have been particularly focused on banks with high levels of exposure to these debts. French banks are particularly vulnerable. Indeed, Credit Agricole and Société Générale, France’s second and third largest banks, had their creidit ratings cut by Moody’s rating agency. They have both seen their share prices fall dramatically this year: 46% and 55% respectively.
Central banks have been becoming increasingly concerned that the sovereign debt crisis in various eurozone countries will turn into a new banking crisis. In an attempt to calm markets and help ease the problem for banks, five central banks – the Federal Reserve, the ECB, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and the Swiss National Bank – announced on 15 September that they would co-operate to offer three-month US dollar loans to commercial banks. They would provide as much liquidity as was necessary to ease any funding difficulties.
The effect of this action calmed the markets and share prices in Europe and around the world rose substantially. But was this enough to stave off a new banking crisis? And did it do anything to ease the sovereign debt crisis and the problems of the eurozone? The following articles explore these questions.
Central banks expand dollar operations Reuters, Sakari Suoninen and Marc Jones (15/9/11)
Europe’s debt crisis prompts central banks to provide dollar liquidity Guardian, Larry Elliott and Dominic Rushe (15/9/11)
From euro zone to battle zone Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Evans (17/9/11)
Global shares rise on central banks’ loan move BBC News (16/9/11)
Geithner warns EU against infighting over Greece BBC News (16/9/11)
How The European Debt Crisis Could Spread npr (USA), Marilyn Geewax (15/9/11)
No Marshall Plan for Europe National Post (Canada) (16/9/11)
Central banks act to help Europe lenders Financial Times, Ralph Atkins, Richard Milne and Alex Barker (15/9/11)
Central Banks Seeking Quick Fix Push Dollar Cost to August Lows Bloomberg Businesweek, John Glover and Ben Martin (15/9/11)
Central banks act to provide euro zone dollar liquidity Irish Times (15/9/11)
Central banks pump money into market: what the analysts say The Telegraph (15/9/11)
Central banks and the ‘spirit of 2008’ BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (15/9/11)
Central Bank statements
News Release: Additional US dollar liquidity-providing operations over year-end Bank of England (15/9/11)
Press Release: ECB announces additional US dollar liquidity-providing operations over year-end ECB (15/9/11)
Additional schedule for U.S. Dollar Funds-Supplying Operations Bank of Japan (15/9/11)
Central banks to extend provision of US dollar liquidity Swiss National Bank (15/9/11)
- Explain what is meant by debt servicing.
- How may the concerted actions of the five central banks help the banking sector?
- Distinguish between liquidity and capital. Is supplying extra liquidity a suitable means of coping with the difficulties of countries in servicing their debts?
- If Greece cannot service its debts, what options are open to (a) Greece itself; (b) international institutions and governments?
- In what ways are the eurozone countries collectively in a better economic and financial state than the USA?
- Is the best solution to the eurozone crisis to achieve greater fiscal harmonisation?
- What are the weaknesses of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) as currently constituted? Should it be turned into a bank or special credit institution taking the role of a ‘European Monetary Fund’?
- Should countries in the eurozone be able to issue eurobonds?