The Italian Dilemma: Weak banks pose risk to already faltering domestic demand
The sudden panic about a potentially imminent Italian banking sector collapse back in July has somewhat subsided for now, but sooner or later the issue will inevitably rear its ugly head again. Two months after Italian bank stocks collapsed even further in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, fears of an imminent need for a bail-in have receded as the Italian government works on plans to shore up its weakest bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS). This will be achieved via an alternative but rather ambitious method culminating—if all goes according to plan—in a new capital injection. However, MPS, which came up short in July’s ECB stress tests, has already received capital injections in the past. Such plans to patch up banks have tended to involve kicking the can down the road rather than providing a more definitive solution to the 360 EUR billion of non-performing loans (NPLs) weighing down Italy’s banking sector, equivalent to one fifth of its GDP. If a sustainable solution is not found to clean up Italian bank balance sheets in the near future, they will inevitably constrain domestic demand and thereby weigh on the country’s already feeble growth even further.
Click the button to embed & share
Click the infographic to open a full-sized version
Domestic demand, the longstanding mainstay of the Italian economy, is already under intense pressure. In the second quarter, GDP failed to grow in quarter-on-quarter terms, primarily on the back of a broad-based deterioration in all components of domestic demand (private consumption, government consumption and fixed investment), which could not be offset by the unusually-positive contribution of the external sector to growth. The difficult climate for domestic demand in Italy is nothing new, since the austerity policies implemented in recent years have taken their toll and Italian governments have centered their efforts on trying to boost external demand instead in order to reverse the current account deficit Italy had until 2012 and keep it positive going forward. And yet private consumption has remained the main driver of Italy’s feeble economic recovery. Analysts foresee that the poorer-than-expected performance of domestic demand (especially private consumption) in the second quarter this year will be temporary, but its growth rate will nevertheless decelerate in 2017.
Our latest September Consensus Forecast for Italy, obtained by polling 37 local and international analysts, sees GDP growing a meagre 0.9% both this year and next, a figure which has in both cases been gradually revised down in recent months from the 1.2% forecasts for both years back in January. The panel are basing their growth projections primarily on modest improvements in consumer spending, albeit at a slower rate than initially expected, on the back of gradual gains in household disposable income fueled mainly by improving employment and low inflation. Domestic demand is forecast to contribute 1.1 percentage points to total growth this year (which will be dragged down slightly by a 0.2% contraction in the external sector), of which 0.7 percentage points will come from the strongest component, private consumption. In 2017, domestic demand is expected to decelerate and contribute 0.8 percentage points to growth while the external sector will pick up slightly. Of the domestic demand components, private consumption is seen remaining the main cornerstone of the tentative recovery next year, decelerating from 2016 but still contributing 0.5 percentage points to growth.
A failure to swiftly clean up bank balance sheets means domestic demand will inevitably suffer as bank credit supply constraints continue to prevent the recovery of investment. Loan-loss provisioning reduces the credit banks have available for lending, especially to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and consumers, which are perceived as risky. Arguably, analysts assessing the Italian banking sector are now most worried about the risk of chronically constrained growth rather than another systemic shock, as banks are trapped in a vicious circle whereby poor economic growth means bad loans keep growing, which in turn weigh on growth even further. The latest ECB stress tests showed that most Italian banks do have loss-absorbing capacity to withstand a theoretical three-year economic shock, but strong concerns remain about their profitability as NPLs reduce their lending ability and deter investors.
Moreover, this scenario of sustained weakness prolongs the risk of banks eventually being forced to resort to a bail-in. A recapitalization of the banking sector involving substantial losses for retail investors would strongly hit consumer confidence and spending, the backbone of Italy‘s economy, which analysts we surveyed foresee as remaining essential to its fragile recovery. For a country whose already weak economic growth is heavily dependent on domestic demand, this would therefore bode disaster, and not only for the individual citizens with affected bond holdings.
Italy’s banking sector woes
The Italian government is desperate to avoid any need for a bail-in, especially after the politically disastrous bail-ins of a handful of small regional banks last year. In this context, it has sought to reassure the markets that individual critical cases of weakness are contained and new capital can be raised without the need for individual investors to take a hit. But exactly how the overwhelming quantity of NPLs in the Italian banking sector will be dealt with is still far from clear. Italian banks have only made provisions to cover just under half of the 360 EUR billion NPLs weighing down their bank balance sheets, of which 201 EUR billion are already estimated by the IMF to be bad loans that will be irrecoverable. Plans such as that affecting MPS, where NPLs are to be offloaded into a securitization vehicle in an attempt to sell them to investors, would seem to be in line with the IMF’s recommendation that Italy build a robust market in NPLs. And yet many analysts consider such ambitions rather wishful thinking, especially since most of the bad loans on Italian bank balance sheets are uncollateralized loans to small businesses and consumers (in contrast to the mortgage NPLs that dominated Spanish and Irish bank balance sheets during their time of stress), and specialist NPL buyers tend to be more attracted to loans with easily recoverable, tangible collateral.
Moreover, if Italy is to create a functioning NPL market, banks will need to accept significant write-downs on their loans compared to their current book value. There is a sizeable discrepancy between banks’ valuations of the NPLs and the price they would get for them if they attempted to sell off the loans to specialist distressed debt players, which will create yet more of a gaping hole on bank balance sheets. The small private Atlante fund and its successor Atlante 2, set up by the Italian government to help participate in distressed banks’ recapitalization and also to buy NPLs from banks, are unlikely to be anywhere near large enough to resolve these problems.
To complicate matters further, holdings of bank bonds by retail investors are exceptionally high due to the longstanding practice in the country of selling (or rather mis-selling) bank bonds to ordinary citizens. An IMF report published back in July calculated that retail investors own about one third of around 600 EUR billion of senior bank bonds and nearly half of an estimated 60 EUR billion of subordinated bonds on the balance sheets of Italy’s 15 largest banks. Under the bail-in requirement of the EU’s Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive (BRRD) in force since the start of this year, at least 8% of a failing bank’s total liabilities must be written off before state aid can be requested, if the EU enforces strict adherence to the rules (the Italian government has been investigating every possible loophole in case). In Italy, the IMF estimates that this requirement would hit the majority of subordinated bond holdings by retail investors in the fifteen largest banks and that it would also hit some of their senior debt holdings in two thirds of those cases.
After the experiences of massive publically-funded bank bailouts in countries such as the UK, Ireland and Spain during the height of the financial crisis, the whole idea behind the BRRD was to break the link between banking and sovereign risk and to stop putting taxpayers on the hook for private banking sector failures, making bank bondholders pay instead. But this assumes that the bondholders are institutional investors, and fails to take account of the specific circumstances of countries such as Italy where retail investors risk having their holdings wiped out too. In Italy’s case, many of the bank bondholders at risk are ordinary citizens and taxpayers, who were mis-sold bank debt as if it were as safe as placing their money in a savings account but with the added benefit of a much higher interest rate. In fact, retail investors are likely to be disproportionately affected compared to institutional investors, since individual citizens are usually sold more risky subordinated debt rather than its safer senior counterpart.
Reviving the risk of recession?
Unless concrete plans for how to create a functioning NPL market are devised, it is unclear how banks that need to recapitalize will be able to do so without ultimately ending up hurting at least some of their equity and subordinated debt holders. For a country where consumer spending is the cornerstone of an already weak recovery, imposing losses on retail investors, if they are not somehow exempted, would risk dampening consumer confidence to the extent that this could in itself push the country back into recession. This is before the wider downside risk implications of a struggling banking sector are even taken into consideration. Even if a bail-in remains avoidable, if banks are forced to use their own precious reserves to increase loan-loss provisions and capital buffers in the absence of any substantial state aid injection, this risks prolonging the Catch-22 of poor growth leading to a weak banking sector and vice versa.
Author: Caroline Gray, Senior Economics Editor
Date: September 19, 2016
TagsBrazil Oil Eastern Europe European Union Infographic Japan Unemployment rate Colombia USA Industrial Metals Commodities Gold Fed Iran Energy Commodities Euro Area Sub-Saharan Africa India precious metals China Venezuela Ukraine Vietnam G7 MENA Latin America Consensus Forecast Mexico Commodities United States Asia Canada oil prices Base Metals Commodities Financial Sector Greece World Bank Exchange Rate France Portugal Nordic Economies Housing Market Inflation Economic Growth (GDP) South Africa Major Economies Emerging Markets Precious Metals Commodities IMF Germany OPEC Australia UK Company News Africa Spain Trade Italy Turkey Investment Russia Forex Tunisia Argentina Banking Sector Brexit Agricultural Commodities Panelists
2 hours ago
4 hours ago
4 hours ago
5 hours ago
7 hours ago
- Latin America’s rising unemployment bucks nearly decade long trend
- Escape from the Central Bank Trap by Daniel Lacalle
- China's economic rebalancing act: What to look out for in 2017
- Driving Growth in Latin America: Challenges & Priorities
- Is the Global Economy Rebalancing?
- Commodity exporters face challenging times
- Recent Global Events Facilitate Mercosur-Pacific Alliance
- 23 economic experts weigh in: Why is productivity growth so low?
- Mexico's outlook as Trump nears 100-day mark
- Interview with Oxford Economics Senior Economist on implications of the possible outcomes of the French Presidential Election
- The anxiety of the small saver in a world of negative interest rates
- Brexit negotiations. Between Uncertainty and Urgency
- An Economic History of the EU from El Blog Salmón
- Baby Boomin': Implications of high population growth in Latin America
- Survey of International Economists Predicts a Le Pen Defeat in French Elections, Says Macron has Best Economic Plan
- Spain in a global context: developed economy with some challenges
- How much is crime costing Latin America?
- Predictions & Estimates from Economist Daniel Lacalle
- What economy will the new Dutch government inherit?
- “The data is not a true reflection of reality in India” Interview with Société Générale India Economist
- 2017 & 2018 Economic Outlook for the Top Oil Producing Countries
- Which countries will have the highest and lowest inflation in 2017?
- What are the prospects for Emerging Economies in 2017?
- What to expect in Asia for 2017
- Top Economics & Finance Blogs of 2017
- Latam to Resume Moderate Growth in 2017 but Important Risks Plague Outlook
- 4 Key European Elections That Will Impact the Economy in 2017
- How are security concerns and political chaos affecting Turkey’s economy?
- Global growth to edge up in 2017
- Set to breach targets again? Debt and deficit outlooks for Southern European Eurozone countries in 2016 & 2017
- What does Donald Trump mean for the U.S. economy?
- How will emerging markets perform in 2017?
- The economic impact of a break in U.S.-Philippines ties
- Trump election: Base metals surge due to infrastructure plan
- 5 updates on the Venezuelan economic crisis
- Canada: When your neighbor’s house is on fire…
- Short-term pain before long-term gain? A look at French labor reform and economic growth
- Asia: Unremarkable growth & unfulfilled promises?
- How India's latest monsoon is affecting the economy
- Russian economy update in wake of OPEC deal announcement
- Innovation in Latin America: Potential Goes Untapped Due to Weak Economic Conditions
- The Wisdom of the Crowds and the Consensus Forecast
- Can the peso predict the U.S. election results?
- There's no end in sight to the Venezuela crisis
- A Look at the European Union Political Calendar
- Survey of international economists shows uncertainty surrounding elections damaging U.S. growth prospects
- FocusEconomics partners with leading online statistics provider Statista
- China: Recent postive economic data may be papering over the cracks
- Sub-Saharan Africa's 2016 & 2017 growth rates
- The Italian Dilemma: Weak banks pose risk to already faltering domestic demand
- How much money do migrants from Latin America send home?
- The U.S.' (Not So) Mysterious Case of the Missing Men
- What to expect from the G20 economies by 2020
- The Pain in Spain: Robust GDP growth cannot mask the persistent structural deficit