[Viewpoint] Can Italy be saved?

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[Viewpoint] Can Italy be saved?

As the economist Mario Monti’s new government takes office in Italy, much is at stake - for the country, for Europe and for the global economy. If reforms falter, public finances collapse and anemic growth persists, Italy’s commitment to the euro will diminish as the perceived costs of membership come to outweigh the benefits. And Italy’s defection from the common currency - unlike that of smaller countries, like Greece - would threaten the euro zone to the core.

Italy is a large economy, with annual GDP of more than $2 trillion. Its public debt is 120 percent of GDP, or roughly $2.4 trillion, which does not include the liabilities of a pension system in need of significant adjustments to reflect an aging population and increased longevity. As a result, Italy has become the world’s third-largest sovereign-debt market.

But rising interest rates are causing the debt-service burden to become onerous and politically unsustainable. Furthermore, Italy must refinance 275 billion euros ($372 billion) of its debt in the next six months, while investors, seeking to reduce their financial exposure to the country, are driving the yield on Italian 10-year bonds to prohibitively high levels - currently above 7 percent.

The need to refinance outstanding debt is not the only challenge. Domestic and foreign bondholders, especially banks, have experienced capital losses, which have damaged balance sheets, capital adequacy and confidence. The trade and current-account deficits are large and rising, probably reflecting a loss of competitiveness and productivity relative to Germany and France, two of Italy’s largest trading partners. Moreover, economic growth has been slow for the past decade, and is not accelerating, which will make it difficult to lower the public-debt burden even with fiscal consolidation.

Italy’s low growth rates reflect several factors, including labor-market rigidities, public-sector under-investment in the science and technology base of the economy, limitations on competition in certain sectors and an extended period of structural adjustment to the euro zone environment.

But Italy has significant strengths as well. Aggregate debt (government, household, nonfinancial corporations and financial institutions) is slightly more than 315 percent of GDP, similar to Switzerland (313), France (323), the United States (296) and even Germany (285), all 2009 numbers. But household debt is very low, at less than 50 percent of GDP. Moreover, a long-standing pattern of high household savings, in the range of 17-30 percent of income, means that individual and household net worth is higher than in most advanced countries.

Italy’s crisis comes at a time of heightened risk for key countries (for example, a hard landing in China, or persistently high unemployment in the United States). In assessing such risks, it is useful to focus on three variables: resources, competence and will.

Resources come first. If the resources are inadequate, the outcome will be bad, regardless of competence or will, unless there is some sort of external help. Likewise, political will is irrelevant without the competence to translate it into effective policies.

It seems to me that in several important cases, including Italy, the United States and China, there is a relatively favorable scenario and a much less attractive one, distinguished largely by the effectiveness of the policy responses. Unlike Greece, where resources are deficient (giving rise only to unattractive scenarios), these countries’ resources are adequate, but either competence or political will (or some combination of the two) is in doubt, though analysts’ assessments vary widely.

For Italy, that means that the health of its consolidated balance sheet can be used in conjunction with reforms and parameter shifts in the pension system to restore fiscal balance and boost growth over time. Three things are required: a comprehensive reform program that meets the adjustment challenges head-on, political backing for that program and time to implement enough of it to establish the credibility needed to lower the high risk premium on Italian debt.

With the first two requirements dependent on Italy’s turbulent domestic politics, investors are increasingly unwilling to bet on the relatively favorable scenario, which means that Italy does not have time. Rising yields could undercut the fiscal-stabilization and economic-growth program before it can be fully implemented. And, as yields rise, the adequacy of the country’s resources becomes questionable or worse.

What is needed is a financial circuit breaker in the form of a transitional lender of last resort. This would allow the reform programs to shift the balance of risk back toward the favorable scenario.

There is, however, a final risk factor. The type of determined intervention designed to prevent the run-up in bond yields may not be forthcoming, owing to a concern within the euro zone core, led by Germany, that unconditional, aggressive action by a lender of last resort would undercut the incentive - and hence the political will - to undertake the required reforms.

The sequencing problem is obvious: A commitment conditional on reform progress will not bring back private investors immediately, because it does not reduce the perceived risk of substantial political obstacles to implementing the necessary measures. Only bold and largely unconditional commitments by both the European Union and Italy can break this dangerous impasse. Absent either one, the risk of a sequential unraveling of euro zone public finances and a global economic downturn will remain high. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

*The writer, a Nobel laureate in economics, is professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

By Michael Spence
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