Via email, Eurointelligence asks Is Italy heading for debt restructuring or euro exit?
We are reporting from an important conference in Rome yesterday that has caught the Italian news headlines this morning – on the future of Italian public debt. It was organized by the Five Star Movement, held in the Italian chamber of deputies, and openly discussed issues such default mechanism inside the eurozone, sovereign debt restructuring mechanisms, parallel payment systems, and of course euro exit.
What is important about this debate is that it is now taking place in public – you can’t be more public than inside the parliament. Italians, not only the Five Star Movement, are openly talking about these issues.
One of us was on the podium, where we reiterated our criticism of the Five Star Movement’s previous-held cavalier notion of a euro referendum. The essential point we were trying to make in the debate, well reflected in this morning’s coverage by the main newspapers, is that euro exit is not a decision to be taken lightly. The announcement of a referendum would produce a financial crisis and might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Euro exit belongs to the category of things that, citing Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “if it were done when ‘tis done*, then ‘twere well It were done quickly*“.
What struck us about this event was the sheer political leverage. Luigi di Maio, the presumptive Five Star candidate for the job of prime minister, seemed to distance himself from supporting euro exit. He sat through the entire 12-hour marathon of discussions. Beppe Grillo and Davide Casaleggio made short appearances. It was very clear that the Five Star Movement is now aggressively tackling the topic of Italy’s future in the eurozone, which is likely to become a major election issue. It also raises questions, as some Italian commentators did this morning, about possible coalition choices for the party if it adopts a more nuanced position on the euro.
A lot of space was given to a discussion on fiscal money – coupons issued by the state to people for use in tax payments. We recall that Yanis Varoufakis worked on a similar scheme for Greece, and one of his advisers at the time gave some details of how such a scheme can be made to work and why it did not work in Greece. The answer is that it requires an extraordinary degree of technical and logistical preparation that is outside the scope of what most governments are physically capable of.
Conferences such as these never reach consensus, but they bring up questions. One of the questions on fiscal money is whether it is sustainable or merely transitional. Is it just an instrument through which a country transitions to a new currency, or just a short-term liquidity measure, or can it work as a supplemental form of money?
Another discussion that struck us was a paper by Alberto Bagnai and Brigitte Granville, who did a stochastic simulation of the costs of euro exit. They noted that there would be an initial cost but that strong counter-cyclical growth would soon resume. The problem with this simulation is that it does not take sufficiently into account the multiple financial shocks that are likely to be dominant during such a phase. Euro exit would do major damage to the financial system both of Italy and the eurozone. The authors have a variable that includes a banking crisis, but we do not think this does justice to the financial Armageddon we are likely to see after an Italian euro exit.
And finally, we noted a comment by Heiner Flassbeck, formerly at the German finance ministry and Unctad, who noted that there can be no solution to the eurozone’s persistent crisis unless one insists on symmetric adjustment in the eurozone. He advocates the strategy that Italy should make a credible threat to leave the eurozone in order to force a German policy shift.
Path Towards Italeave
I have noted before that all of Italy’s major political parties with the exception of Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party have flirted with or actively support leaving the Euro.
The path to Italeave is a difficult one, requiring a referendum and a constitutional change, but trouble is brewing on a huge number of fronts simultaneously:
- The Italian banking system is insolvent
- Another refugee crisis is brewing (this time via boats from Libya)
- Italy’s youth unemployment is a whopping 37%
- The ECB is the buyer of only resort for Italian bonds
- Italy’s debt to GDP ratio is over 130% to the consternation of Eurozone officials
- The global recovery is extremely long in the tooth
- Italy made no progress during the recovery
- The topic of Italeave is no longer taboo
Any number of things could start a chain reaction making Italeave look good to a majority of Italian voters.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock