With interest rates on its sovereign debt surging well above seven per cent, there is a rising risk that Italy may soon lose market access. Given that it is too-big-to-fail but also too-big-to-save, this could lead to a forced restructuring of its public debt of €1,900bn. That would partially address its “stock” problem of large and unsustainable debt but it would not resolve its “flow” problem, a large current account deficit, lack of external competitiveness and a worsening plunge in gross domestic product and economic activity.
To resolve the latter, Italy may, like other periphery countries, need to exit the monetary union and go back to a national currency, thus triggering an effective break-up of the eurozone.
Until recently the argument was being made that Italy and Spain, unlike the clearly insolvent Greece, were illiquid but solvent given austerity and reforms. But once a country that is illiquid loses its market credibility, it takes time – usually a year or so – to restore such credibility with appropriate policy actions. Therefore unless there is a lender of last resort that can buy the sovereign debt while credibility is not yet restored, an illiquid but solvent sovereign may turn out insolvent. In this scenario sceptical investors will push the sovereign spreads to a level where it either loses access to the markets or where the debt dynamic becomes unsustainable.
So Italy and other illiquid, but solvent, sovereigns need a “big bazooka” to prevent the self-fulfilling bad equilibrium of a run on the public debt. The trouble is, however, that there is no credible lender of last resort in the eurozone.
One is urgently needed now. Eurobonds are out of the question as Germany is against them and they would require a change in treaties that would take years to approve. Quadrupling the eurozone bailout fund from €440bn to €2,000bn is a political non-starter in Germany and the “core” countries. The European Central Bank could do the dirty job of backstopping Italy and Spain, but it does not want to do it as it would take a huge credit risk. It also cannot do it, as unlimited support of these countries would be obviously illegal and against the treaty no-bailout clause.
Thus, since half of the European financial stability facility’s resources are already committed to Greece, Ireland, Portugal and to their banks, there is only about €200bn left for Italy and Spain. Attempts have been made to use financial engineering to turn this small sum into €2,000bn. But the leveraged EFSF is a turkey that will not fly, because the original EFSF was already a giant collateralised debt obligation, where a bunch of dodgy, sub-triple-A sovereigns try to achieve, by miracle, a triple-A rating via bilateral guarantees. So a leveraged EFSF is a giant CDO squared that will not work and will not reduce spreads to sustainable levels. The other “turkey” concocted by the EFSF was supposed to be a special purpose vehicle where reserves of central banks become the equity tranche that allows sovereign wealth funds and the Bric countries to inject resources in a triple-A super senior tranche. Does this sound like a giant sub-prime CDO scam? Yes, it does. This is why it was vetoed by the Bundesbank.
So, since the levered EFSF and the EFSF SPV will not fly – and there is not enough International Monetary Fund money to rescue Italy and/or Spain – the spreads for Italian debt have reached a point of no return.
After a patchwork of lending facilities are cobbled together, and found wanting by the markets, the only option will be a coercive but orderly restructuring of the country’s debt. Even a change in Italian government to a coalition headed by a respected technocrat will not change the fundamental problem – that spreads have reached a tipping point, that output is free-falling and that, given a debt to GDP ratio of 120 per cent, Italy needs a primary surplus of over 5 per cent of GDP just to prevent its debt from blowing up.
Output now is in a vicious free fall. More austerity and reforms – that are necessary for medium-term sustainability – will make this recession worse. Raising taxes, cutting spending and getting rid of inefficient labour and capital during structural reforms have a negative effect on disposable income, jobs, aggregate demand and supply. The recessionary deflation that Germany and the ECB are imposing on Italy and the other periphery countries will make the debt more unsustainable.
Even a restructuring of the debt – that will cause significant damage and losses to creditors in Italy and abroad – will not restore growth and competitiveness . That requires a real depreciation that cannot occur via a weaker euro given German and ECB policies. It cannot occur either through depressionary deflation or structural reforms that take too long to reduce labour costs.
So if you cannot devalue, or grow, or deflate to a real depreciation, the only option left will end up being to give up on the euro and to go back to the lira and other national currencies. Of course that will trigger a forced conversion of euro debts into new national currency debts.
The eurozone can survive with the debt restructuring and exit of a small country such as Greece or Portugal. But if Italy and/or Spain were to restructure and exit this would effectively be a break-up of the currency union. Unfortunately this slow-motion train wreck is now increasingly likely.
Only if the ECB became an unlimited lender of last resort and cut policy rates to zero, combined with a fall in the value of the euro to parity with the dollar, plus a fiscal stimulus in Germany and the eurozone core while the periphery implements austerity, could we perhaps stop the upcoming disaster.
The writer is chairman of Roubini Global Economics, professor at the Stern School at New York University and co-author of ‘Crisis Economics’