Next Phase for Italian Politics

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Next week, Italy formally turns to trying to form a new government.  It recent took Germany nearly six months to for a government with the same political parties as the outgoing government.  However, investors may not be as patient with Italy, but so far Italy’s political situation has not weighed unduly on Italian assets this month.

Important economic data will be reported next week.  Japan reports the results of its latest Tankan survey and the household spending (following today’s report of disappointing retail sales). The EMU’s March inflation report and February retail sales are on tap.  The US jobs and auto sales for March will be released.

It is also the start of the next phase in Italian politics, which since the election in early March has not been much of a market factor.  Indeed, the Italian equity market is the best performing within the G7 this month, losing a little less than 1%.   Italian bank shares have declined by 3.9% this month.  They fell by nearly 1.6% in February.  However, it seems to be simply paring the out-sized 13.3% rise in January.

The 10-year bond yield has fallen 15 bp this month, matching the decline in German bunds, though trailing behind the 35 bp decline in Spain.  At the two-year tenor, the Italian yield has fallen 12 bp, edging out Spain and twice the decline that Germany experienced.

In the middle of next week, Italy’s President Mattarella will begin consulting with party leaders to see if a majority government can be formed. There are four key players here.  The center-left PD, who’s leader, Renzi, insisted that it goes into opposition have a horrific showing in the polls before resigning.  The center-right accounts for two of the players Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Northern League (Salvini).  The Northern League edged out Forza Italia by four percentage points and so its ostensibly the senior party in the coalition.  The Five Star Movement (M5S) won a plurality of votes, but not a majority.

There are a few more wrinkles in the plot.  First, due to a tax fraud conviction, Berlusconi cannot serve hold office until 2019.  Second, Berlusconi had campaigned only force that could stop the populist M5S.  This further strains ties between the two camps.  Third, Salvini of the Northern League has stuck with Berlusconi and is resisting M5S from pulling them apart.  Fourth, Berlusconi and Salvini are opposed to the head of the M5S, Di Maio, from becoming the next premier, which he seems to believe he is entitled to as the head of the party with the most votes.

It took Belgium over a year to cobble together a government after a recent election.  It took Germany the better part of six months to form a government of the same parties that were in the outgoing government.  Nest week will be a month since the Italian election.  While the situation seems fluid and it may be premature to reach any strong conclusions, the outlook is not particularly encouraging.

Recall that during the campaign, the M5S ruled out forming a coalition and the other parties wanted little to do with it.  Many, like ourselves, thought the most likely outcome was going to be a government like the present one, with center-right and center-left represented.  However, like in a few other European countries, including Germany, the centrist parties did miserably.

During the campaign, the M5S had modified its rhetoric.  It was no longer vocally hostile to the euro or the EU.  It seemed to be remaking itself into a social democratic, green political party.  From an outsider’s vantage point, it seemed like the PD was a better ally.  However, the PD seems missing in action, allowing the center-right to eclipse it.  Although there was a working agreement between the M5S and center-right to elect the speakers of both chambers of parliament, the relationship seems exceptionally prickly.

The election was held under new rules that had ostensibly been designed to facilitate more sturdy governments.  If Mattarella finds that after several weeks, a stable coalition remains elusive, a technocrat government could be put into place that would seek to modify the election rules again and go back to the polls.  This might ultimately be in the PD and Berlusconi’s interest.  It might allow the PD to regroup and maybe even recover the left flank that split from it last year.  If the next election is deferred sufficiently, Berlusconi’s ambition can be exercised again.  The M5S thinks that it has the momentum.  Northern League’s Salvini was quoted in the press as saying it there was a 50/50 chance of a new election.