Italian Politics Don’t Matter Until They Do

new Italy

For nearly two months since the Italian election, it has not been an important market factor.  That changed today with a sharp sell-off in Italian bonds and stocks.  An unprecedented summer election is increasingly likely.  

Since the inconclusive election in early March, Italian assets have not been punished.  The 10-year bond yield approached the low for the year at the end of last week (~1.7%), which is more than 25 bp lower than on the eve of the election.   Over the past period, the German 10-year bund is off 10 bp. Italian stocks (FTSE-MIB) reached 10-year highs yesterday, culminating a 12.5% rally since the election.

However, the failure to form a new government and the rejection of a technocrat government, proposed by President Mattarella boosts the chances of new elections in a few months.  This is spooking investors today.  Italian bonds are suffering the biggest decline of the year, lifting the  10-year yield nine basis points.  At 1.85%, the yield is the highest in over a month.   Italian shares also have been punished today.  Italy’s stock market is the best performing in the G7 so far this year.  It is up 10.3% with today’s nearly 2% decline.

There are ostensibly three main political forces in Italy. The Five Star Movement is seen as a populist party who’s agenda appears unique blend of right/left issues.  From the March elections, it emerged as the single biggest force.  The center-right alliance has two main components, the Northern League, a nationalist party and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.  The Northern League has surpassed Forza Italia. The center-left is split between a wing led by former Prime Minister Renzi, who quit as head of the PD but insists on not joining a coalition with the Five Star Movement or the Northern League.

A new SWG poll published yesterday confirms the results of a couple local elections held since the national contest in which the Northern League performed particularly well.  The poll has the Northern League’s support up to 24.4% from 17.4% in the March election.  However, support for the center-right coalition edged up to 38.5% from 37.1%, which suggests the Northern League is drawing support from Forza Italia.  Support for the center-left is steady a little below 20%.

Mattarella may be too much in a hurry to seek the technocrat or caretaker government.  Recall it took Germany six months to hammer out a coalition after last September’s elections.  Or consider Spain that had elections in 2015 and 2016 before finally returning Rajoy to power.  A technocrat government would mean that Berlusconi was the last elected Prime Minister, and he was forced out in 2011.   Northern League head Salvini asked Mattarella for authorization to see if he could put together a government>  After consulting with the various party leaders, Mattarella concluded the chances for success were minor.

With little hope of an agreement, Mattarella wants a to name a government whose mission would be to pass the budget and prepare for elections.  A local paper suggested several potential candidates, including Elisabetta Belloni, secretary-general in the Foreign Minister., Carlo Cottarelli, previously an executive director at the IMF, and was also in charge of the Italian government’s spending review, and Marta Cartabia, deputy head of the Constitutional Court.

Mattarella may name a candidate over the next week or so, who would then face a vote of confidence within parliament.  The head of the Five Star Movement (Di Maio) and the head of the Northern League (Salvini) have indicated they will not support a new technocrat government.  Assuming that Mattarella’s candidate fails to secure a confidence vote, there would be little choice but to dissolve parliament.  An election date must be set at least 60 days later.

The national election could be held in the second half of July.  A summer election in Italy appears unprecedented in modern times.  Mattarella prefers an election early next year.  A summer election would depress turnout and a fall election would put at risk the 2019 budget process.  While Di Maio and Salvini do not see eye-to-eye on a wide range of issues, they both think that early elections are better for them.

The Five Star Movement is ideologically and politically difficult to categorize.  On social economic and environmental issues, it has much in common with the traditional left.  It takes a principled stance against improprieties and corruption which is why it is so deadset against being in a coalition with Berlusconi, who can’t hold office until next year due to past convictions.  On diversity and tolerance, the Five Star Movement shares some positions of the center-right.  As the movement evolved from its founder Grillo, it has become somewhat less eurosceptic.  Di Maio rejects that label and others that identify the Five Star Movement as populist.  In many ways, it seems like a social democratic party.

The Nothern League is more eurosceptic than the Five Star Movement but arguably is not as extreme as say the AfD in Germany.  A key issue that may unite the Five Star Movement and the Northern League is antipathy to Europe’s refugee policy and in particular what has been dubbed the “Dublin Regulation” which makes the first EU country that a refugee enters responsible for well-being.  This puts an unduly burden on the frontline states (like Italy and Greece) who among least capable of shouldering the financial costs.  There is little incentive for other countries to advocate a more equitable approach.