Italy Economy Real Time Data Charts

Edward Hugh is only able to update this blog from time to time, but he does run a lively Twitter account with plenty of Italy related comment. He also maintains a collection of constantly updated Italy economy charts together with short text updates on a Storify dedicated page Italy - Lost in Stagnation?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Colonialism Goes Into Reverse Gear As The Libyan Government Bails Out Unicredit

Taking my cue from the worthy and well thumbed play-book of the Brothers Coen, I thought every now and again I might follow up all those, long, desperately serious, and highly indigestible posts about how Italy should now be considered to be "No Country For Old Men", with something in rather lighter vein.

The highly acclaimed and award winning Miss Iceland Look-alike show is not the only prime time TV talent contest we are going to see over the coming weeks and months it seems. We are also apparently on the verge of watching a beefed up and much more macho version, whose pilot screenings have now been launched under the working "Man-City/Emirates Stadium" look-alike title, since news today informs us that the Libyan government is at this very moment in the process of bailing out Italy's much troubled banking system (following in the well trodden footsteps of AC Milan, who were, it seems, able to partially finance the acquisition of the the world's former number one footballer - Ronaldinho Gaucho - thanks to a fundraising trip to the Arab Emirates).

UniCredit SpA surged after Libyan investors including its central bank boosted their stake in Italy's biggest bank and said they will invest more. The shares gained as much as 12 percent to 2.42 euros in Milan, valuing the bank at 32.2 billion euros ($42.4 billion). Libya's investment is ``good,'' UniCredit Chief Executive Officer Alessandro Profumo told reporters in Milan. ``It's a confirmation of their interest in our company, which they also consider to be very attractive.''

The investment may be worth much as 1.3 billion euros, according to a note by Centrosim analyst Marco Sallustio published this morning. It could allow Libya to obtain a seat on the bank's board. Central Bank of Libya, Libyan Investment Authority and Libyan Foreign Bank bought shares to boost their holding to 4.2 percent, the investors said in a statement late yesterday. They intend to buy as much as 500 million euros of securities that UniCredit plans to sell over coming months.

But then, where do you imagine that the greatest risk to the viability of Italy's Unicredit lies? And what do think is the the principal reason why both Italy and its banking system need this sudden Libyan support? Well you might try looking "over there", you know, where they are holding the Miss Iceland look-alike contest.

Here, courtesy of Reuters, are some basic facts about Unicredit:

- - UniCredit is one of Europe's top 10 banks by market value, with a capitalisation of about $39 billion. It is second to Intesa Sanpaolo SpA among Italian banks.

-- In a U-turn on Oct. 5 it announced plans to boost capital by 6.6 billion euros. It will ask investors for 3 billion euros in a capital increase and offer shares rather than a cash payout on 2008 results, putting 3.6 billion euros instead in its own coffers.

-- UniCredit on the same day boosted its target for Core Tier I to 6.7 percent at the end of 2008 based on Basel II requirements from its previous aim of 6.2 percent. The figure was 5.7 percent at the end of June.

-- It also slashed earnings per share forecasts for this year to 39 euro cents from around 52 euro cents previously.

-- It is the Italian bank with the most foreign exposure. UniCredit gets about half its revenue from outside Italy and its conservative lending market.

-- UniCredit, whose units include Germany's HVB, is among market leaders in Germany and Austria.

-- UniCredit's share price has dropped about 62 percent since the start of the year, pushing it second to Intesa Sanpaolo among Italian banks. The DJ Stoxx European banks index has lost about 52 percent.

-- First-half net profit was 2.9 billion euros on operating income of 14 billion euros. Deposits from customers and debt securities totalled 639.8 billion euros.

-- The bank traces its origins back to 15th century Bologna. The current UniCredit resulted from the merger of nine of Italy's biggest banks in 1998, as well as the purchase of HVB in 2005 and Italy's Capitalia last year.

-- The biggest shareholder is the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Verona Vicenza Belluno e Ancona, at 5 percent.

-- Libya now comes second with its combined 4.23 percent, followed by:

Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Torino with 3.83 percent

Carimonte Holding with 3.35 percent

Gruppo Allianz with 2.37 percent

Fondi Barclays Global Investors UK Holdings Ltd with 2.01 percent.

-- UniCredit is the biggest shareholder in powerful investment bank Mediobanca SpA with an 8.7 percent stake.

Evidently, in this type of business, what you pay for is what you get:

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pledged $5 billion over 25 years to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in compensation for the occupation of the country in the 30 years before World War II.

Italy will pay $200 million per year to Libya in the form of investments in infrastructure. The money will finance the construction of a coastline highway that runs about 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) between the Egyptian and Tunisian borders.

``It's a full moral recognition of the damage done to Libya during Italy's colonial period,'' Berlusconi said after arriving at the airport in the Libyan city of Benghazi, where the two leaders met to sign the accord. ``This will end 40 years of misunderstandings.''

And why, we might ask ourselves, does the Italian government find itself in need of such recourse to what we might now term "the Libyan Connection" in order to recapitalise its banks. Well, Global Insight in a very informative recent survey of the recently adopted EU government commitments to the banking sector perhaps offer us one part of the explanation: quite simply, after years of letting the public finances drift, Italy simply doesn't have any borrowing capacity left with which to raise the necessary money itself, since with debt at around 104% of GDP, people - apart from those ever so kind Libyans that is - have become increasingly reluctant to lend it to them.

In a deviation from the measures seen in France and Germany, Italy has not created a fund for its rescue plan, with Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti stating that, "As of today, we estimate that it's not necessary to have a predetermined figure."......Italy is in stark contrast to other European nations by providing no firm capital commitments; however, the government's reluctance to create a rescue fund could partly be a reflection of the restraints imposed by its substantial public debt, which stood at 104% of GDP in 2007.

So, as I said, with people becoming increasingly apprehensive about buying Italian government paper, then having rich and obliging friends like the Libyan government is going to be a real boon. Oh yes, but of course when I said "people" in the last sentence, I wasn't, of course, including, at least for the moment, that other untiring friend and trusted workhorse the Italian government can still count on for support over at the ECB in Frankfurt.

The Bank of Italy will also engage in a 40-billion-euro debt swap, taking on inferior bank debt for government bonds that can then be used to obtain financing from the ECB.

So don't let yourself get behind the curve, and don't miss out on the very latest talent-stalking trend towards ever more exotic varieties of global look-alike contests. Now which country was it where the banks were being busily underwritten by the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, just let me go and check my records......?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Europe's Leaders Agree To A Common Front In Fighting The Banking Crisis

Well, Europe's leaders have finally bitten the bullet. Faced with what IMF head Dominique Strauss Kahn warned could turn into a global financial meltdown, our leaders have risen to the challenge, at least to a certain extent. The details of what has been agreed continue to remain vague, but obviously I think it is a good FIRST move. More will now almost inevitably follow, but our reluctant leaders have finally got their feet wet, and the bathing costume is on. Now it is only left for them to dive into the ocean which lies in front.

And, of course, the situation was not without its theatricals. Initially billed as a "eurozone only" meet-up, Gordon Brown was ultimately summoned, a move which was not totally essential, but since he was the only one with a real "going plan" on the table, the invitation made sense. Of course Brown himself has been relishing it all, proudly proclaining that Britain will "lead the way" out of the credit crunch, and adding in true Churchilian style that "I've seen in the cities and towns I've visited a calm, determined British spirit; that, while this is a world financial crisis that has started from America, Britain will lead the way in pulling through."

Well, we will see.

While the details at present remain vague the important point would seem to be that Europe's leaders have made a commitment not to allow any systemic bank - in Western Europe (the guarantee does not extent to Hungary which today had to turn to the IMF for support) - to go bust, and it will now be hard for them to go back on this without losing all credibility. The deposit guarantees - which may be useful in terms of reassuring the general public - would now seem to be largely redundant, since if the large banks, and their debts, are to be guaranteed, then logically the deposits themselves are safe. And while Europe itself will underwrite the systemic banks, the national governments will be able to handle the smaller ones (Spain's regional cajas etc) at local level.

So government finances will guarantee the banks, but who will guarantee the government finances? This, at this stage may seem to be an idle question, since none are under direct threat, but I think we need to be clear here, the money which will now need to be spent - and it is way too early to start trying to put precise numbers - will have to come from somewhere, and by and large this will mean the national governments issuing debt, but if we come to individual national governments like Greece or Italy - where debt to GDP ratios are already over 100% - it is not clear how much paper they can actually issue without seeing what is know as the "spread" on their bonds increasing significantly. So while it is certainly time to breath a sigh of relief, we we far from being able to whistle the all clear. And of course the real economy consequences of what has just happened are pretty serious, and the funds which will be spent propping up the banks will not be available for fiscal stimulas packages, so the bottom line is that we, in the OECD world, may well be in for one of the longest and deepest recessions since WWII.

The Package Itself

Now, as I say, the details we have to date of what has been agreed are far from clear. What is clear is that the EU collectively has agreed to guarantee new bank debt in the eurozone (and possibly elsewhere, but this point still awaits clarification, since as I say the guarantee evidently doesn't apply to Hungary, and that should give us some sort of idea about just how strained everything is at the moment). They are also committed to the use of taxpayers money to keep any systemic banks which get into distress afloat, and by implication they are prepared to pool resources to do this (maybe by injecting funds into the ECB as the UK has pledged to do for the Bank of England). This is also a very important precedent: since the European institutional structure is something of a patchwork quilt at this point, it is clearly make, mend and improvise time.

Wolfgang Munchau clearly seems to catch the spirit of the times in a long and thoughtful article in the Financial Times this morning:

"I had a better feeling about Sunday’s eurozone summit. It produced a detailed and co-ordinated national response to recapitalise the banking system, and to provide insurance to revive the inter-banking market. But as far as I could ascertain, this was still agreement on ground rules for national plans, and it is not clear how well this agreement would cover the numerous cross-border issues that have arisen. There is no doubt that, in the eurozone at least, we have come a long way since Friday. It is an okay policy response, but I wonder whether this is going far enough at a time when global investors are pondering whether to pull the big plug."

Well look Wolfgang, my favourite phrase these days is "sufficient unto the day", we have come as far as we are able to come in one weekend. There will still be next weekend, and the one after. Clearly we have not come far enough yet, but as Paul Newman discovered in a once famous film, there are only so many hard boiled eggs you can eat in one sitting.

The key measures announced at the weekend were: a pledge to guarantee until the end of 2009 bank debt issues with maturities up to five years; permission for governments to buy bank stakes; and a commitment to recapitalize what the statement called `"systemically'' critical banks in distress. The statement gave no indication of how much governments were willing to spend or the size of bank assets deemed to be at risk, and European officials refused to estimate the price tag of the measures. Some indication of the numbers involved will start to emerge today, when France, Germany, Italy and others begin to announce their national measures.

"What has been done over the last three days should provide elements of reassurance,'' Dominique Strauss-Kahn, chief of the International Monetary Fund said on French radio Europe 1 today. The worst of the financial crisis ``may be behind us.''

Often criticized for its preoccupation with inflation, the European Central Bank abruptly reversed course last week, cutting interest rates for the first time since 2003 in a move coordinated with the U.S. Federal Reserve and four other central banks. The ECB doesn't have the legal power at the moment to follow the Federal Reserve and buy commercial paper to unblock a financing tool that drives everyday commerce for many businesses, according President Jean-Claude Trichet, who also participated in yesterday's Paris meeting.

``We are looking at our entire system of guarantees and we can imagine new measures to enlarge access to our system of guarantees,'' Trichet said.

As Wolfgang Munchau points out, there is now an almost unanimous consensus among economists about the need for a recapitalisation of the banking system, and for the provision of some form of public-sector insurance for the money markets, even if there is no consensus about how exactly to do this. We should not forget, of course, that it was precisely the practice of offering guarantees - via instruments like credit default swaps - for what appeared at the outset to be investment grade lending but which later turned out to be extremely risky that has produced the current "near meltdown", and we therefore need to be extremely careful about the kind of guarantees we are offering, since what we do not want to happen is to see public finances meltdown in the future in just the way bank finances have.

What Wolfgang doesn't draw too much attention to - perhaps he is too modest - is how few of us there actually are who have been who have been arguing systematically and repeatedly for just this kind of package of measures since the very start. Wolfgang is one of a very select company here, and I, if I may be so presumptious, am another. Back on July the 18th - in a post for RGE Europe EconMonitor - I said the following (the numbers were pretty rule of thumb, but in the light of what is now coming out they don't look that far off):

So what does all this add up to? Well, to do some simple rule of thumb arithmetic, just to soak up the builders debts and handle the cedulas mess, we are talking of quantities in the region of 500 to 600 billion euros, or more than half of one years Spanish GDP. Of course, not every builder is going to go bust, and not every cedula cannot be refinanced, but the weight of all this on the Spanish banking system is going to be enormous...............So it is either inject a lot of money now - more than Spain itslelf can afford alone - or have several percentage points of GDP contraction over several years and very large price deflation - ie a rather big slump - in my very humble opinion. And it is just at this point that we hit a major structural, and hitherto I think, unforeseen problem in the eurosystem (although Marty Feldstein was scratching around in the right area from the start). The question really we need an answer to is this one: if there is to be a massive cash injection into Spain's economy, who is going to do the injecting? Spain alone will surely simply crumble under the weight, and it is evident that the problem has arisen not as the result of bad decisions on the part of the Spanish government, but as a result of institutional policies administered in Brussels and monetary policy formulated over at the ECB. And yet, the Commission and the ECB are not the United States Treasury and the Federal Reserve, no amount of talk about European countries being similar to Florida and Nebraska is going to get us out of this one: and it is going to be step up to the plate and put your money where your mouth is time soon enough.

Well, getting through to the put your money where your mouth is stage didn't take that long, now did it? Twelve weeks and two days to be exact.

My central point at this stage would be that all of this is going to have, among other things, important implications for the real economy, since it is the degree of all that leveraging which we have been busy doing which is now going to have to be reduced, and while we are all busy "deleveraging", our real economies will notice a significant drop in demand. I wouldn't like to dwell too much on the point at this stage, but this was, of course, precisely what happened in the 1930s.

Basically, one economy after another in the developed world is now going to become export dependent. If I take Spain as an example, perhaps things will be clearer. Spanish households are now in debt to the tune of around 90% of GDP. Spanish companies owe something like 120% of GDP, and the government, which is just about to start accumulating more debt, owes about 50% of GDP. Adding that up, Spain incorporated owes about 260% of GDP at the present time. But the situation is worse than that, since debts continue to mount.

Back in the good old days of Q2 2007, when Spain's economy was busy growing at a rate of about 4% per annum, corporate and household debts were increasing at a rate of about 20% per annum. 4% growth for a 20% rise in indebtedness (or an increase of about 30% in debts to GDP) doesn't seem like that good value for money when you come to think about it - and in the meantime Spain Incorporated's indebtedness to the rest of the world (via the current account deficit) was growing at a rate of 10% per annum. Fast forward to Q2 2008, and household and corporate debts were rising at a mere 10% per annum (and government debt had also started to rise, at this point at a rate of around 2% of GDP per annum, or 4% of accumulated debt), but Spain's economy had reached a virtual standstill (true it was still growing at 1% rate year on year, but quarter on quarter it was virtually stationary). So not only is this a horrible "bang for the buck" ratio, it is also totally unsustainable. Indebtedness has to be reduced, not increased, and this can be done in one of two ways, either by ramping up GDP growth (which in the present environment is out of the question in the short term) or by burning down the debt by paying (or writing) it off.

This harsh but unavoidable reality has two important implications. The first of these is that Spain is going to need external help, and the second is that while the level of indebtedness is being reduced, Spain will not get GDP growth from internal demand, and any headline GDP growth there is will need to come from exports.

And of course Spain is just one (extreme) case. There will be a whole company of others who need to make this transition (the UK, Greece, Denmark, Ireland at least, and probably virtually all of Eastern Europe - now what was that football song I used to sing back then in the old days, over there on the Spion Kop... "when you walk through a storm...").

So the question is, while a host of new countries are suddenly struggling to export, who is going to do all the importing? No mean topic this one. The only person who seems to have even the inkling of a proposal here is World Bank head Robert Zoellick, who came right out with it on Sunday: we need a new multilateral structure. The global financial crisis underscores the need for a coordinated action to build a better system, he said on Sunday. "We need to modernize multilateralism for a new global economy....We need concerted action now to ... build a better system for the future." Never better said, and never was the fact that we live in an interconnected world placed under such a stern spotlight.

And just what will this system look like? Well, the details will all need working out, but in broad brushstroke terms, my strong feeling is that we need to bring-in the large developing economies like India, Brazil, Egypt, the Philippines etc en-bloc, and create a Marshall-Plan-type structure were all those newly created developed world savings can be put to good (and safe) use in facilitating the emergence of those long suffering emerging and frontier markets, and in so doing these countries will play their part by helping provide the customers which our own "export dependent" economies will all now so badly need. But, as I say above, sufficient unto the day......