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Photo: Tony Gentile / Reuters

Italy: Repricing risk amid political crisis

von Andrea Iannelli und Alberto Chiandetti

Veröffentlicht am 4 Juni 2018

Politische UnsicherheitItalyMarket context

Italy’s political developments have rocked both stocks and bonds. With a technical government now in charge and new elections back on the agenda, we may not have seen the end of this adjustment yet and increased market volatility is likely to persist. We may look back to the current turmoil and investor capitulation as a great buying opportunity, but for now it’s difficult to choose the best time to catch the proverbial ‘falling knife’.

It’s been eight weeks since the Italian elections. After several weeks of negotiation between the two largest parties resulting from the polls - the Five Star Movement and the Lega - a coalition was finally achieved, with the market initially concerned by the deficit prone agenda put forward in the coalition programme. However, the focus quickly shifted to the question of the Euro, a topic that had rarely been discussed on the campaign trail. The coalition saw its plan rejected by the President of the Republic, Mr. Mattarella, who did not consider the coalition candidate for the role of Finance Minister, Mr. Savona, and his critical views towards the European project acceptable. With no room or willingness to compromise by the coalition parties, the mandate to form a government was eventually given to Carlo Cottarelli, an ex-IMF official expected to hold the helm until fresh elections later in the year, possibly as soon as July.

The recent turn of events, unprecedented in Italy and in most European countries, has led to a constitutional crisis with elected parties challenging the role and remit of the President. The next elections will be very polarised with the vote becoming a view on Europe and on the country’s political establishment.

Markets have not taken the latest developments lightly. The Italian equity market, the darling of Europe in the past two years, has given up all of its outperformance against broader European indices over that period, with bank stocks in particular taking a hit. Italy’s government bond yields have jumped and spreads over their ‘safer’ German equivalents have risen, with some contagion to Spanish and Portuguese bonds. All Italian fixed income assets are suffering but sovereign bonds (BTPs) more so than corporate bonds, possibly due to the higher liquidity in the former, both in cash and futures, which makes them a preferred vehicle to hedge broader country risk held in credit portfolios.

Source: Thomson Reuters, Fidelity International, May 2018.

Politics versus fundamentals

The situation remains extremely fluid and markets will continue to trade at the mercy of headlines and announcements. Italian assets will clearly trade with a high beta and the country’s high debt-to-GDP ratio leaves little room for manoeuvre on the deficit, keeping investors wary. Rising yields will certainly be an unwelcome development for an issuer with such a high debt burden, and markets can act as ‘automatic stabilisers’ should the fiscal stance become untenable. On the growth front, the economy is still 5.7 per cent smaller than before the financial crisis so plenty of work is still required. The instability that is now apparent, however, will stall, if not reverse, some of the more meaningful reforms recently implemented.

Year-on-year GDP growth. Source: Thomson Reuters, Fidelity international, May 2018.

On the economic front, conditions are not as much of a strain as they have been in the past. Domestic investors hold a larger share of the nation’s debt than a decade ago, and the ECB is now a stable buyer of Italian sovereign bonds, of which it owns a not insignificant 14 per cent. Economic growth has been positive since 2013, the current account deficit has been in surplus for five years, and the fiscal deficit has more than halved since its 2009 peak. Corporate fundamentals have improved considerably in the past year, and the national champions among Italian banks have worked hard to improve their capital position, selling non-performing loans and improving profitability and margins.

Source: Thomson Reuters, Fidelity International, May 2018.
Source: Thomson Reuters, Fidelity International, May 2018.

This helps to explain why risk premia, for example those reflected in bond spreads, have been rising but remain, at least for now, well below the levels recorded in 2011-2012, when Italy, along with much of the rest of Europe, was in recession.

Source: Bloomberg, Fidelity international, May 2018.

When to catch a falling knife?

While Italy’s fundamentals may have improved, there is no room for complacency. The country’s high debt stock means that every additional basis point matters for its interest burden and market moves can ultimately change the fundamental picture. Although there are some mitigating factors, investors remain at the mercy of headlines while political tensions remain elevated; volatility will not ease much in this environment and further price corrections may occur.

As we move towards a potential new election in the autumn, there is a chance that market participants and voters will see it as a vote on the Euro and on Italian and European institutions. It is still unclear whether 5 Star and Lega will use these as themes in the upcoming campaign. The latest price action, however, does indicate that some of this risk is being priced in.

The promises of fiscal largesse, meanwhile, remain in place and will still be a feature of the main parties’ electoral programme, as will the reversal of the previous government’s pension and labour market reforms.

Lastly, there is a non-negligible risk of a downgrade of Italy’s sovereign rating, which could further impact investor appetite for Italian assets. Crucially, should all four major rating agencies downgrade Italy to high yield, the ECB would be unable to continue buying BTPs as part of its PSPP programme. This is not our base case, however, in light of past experiences with other peripheral countries, namely Portugal, which remained ECB-eligible despite having worse fundamentals compared to Italy.

But how much of these scenarios are already priced in? While political risk is notoriously difficult to price, valuations now appear a little more balanced following the underperformance of Italian assets and can offer opportunities to investors willing to weather the volatility and dig a little deeper into corporate fundamentals.

Many Italian companies, for example, are not all that exposed to the domestic market, which accounts for less than half of their sales in aggregate. Shares of Italy-based global companies in interesting niche areas or sectors may get caught up in local sell-offs despite little change to their fundamental outlook.

Similarly, on the fixed income side, financials have suffered due to the large holdings of BTPs that Italian banks have. The largest Italian banks, the national champions, however, are in a much better position now than they were in 2011. Balance sheets are now stronger than in the recent past, following the successful disposal of NPLs achieved in the last two years. They may even see their market share improve as investors shift their deposits to larger institutions they perceive as “safer” during periods of heightened volatility.

However, caution is still warranted. The new volatility regime changes the risk and reward proposition for Italian assets and, by extension, across for the wider southern European periphery, at least until we get better clarity on how the Italian political situation will evolve.

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