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Italy budget debacle puts EU back in global spotlight

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A woman buys fruits in a street market in Rome. Reuters

NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) – As the euro zone sovereign debt crisis petered out, European officials at annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund were happy to move out of the spotlight over recent years. Europe was not in the eye of the storm.

The IMF’s annual meetings, normally held in Washington, this year is taking place on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, where a magnitude six earthquake welcomed the world’s 20 top finance ministers on the eve of their talks.

But the tremor, which awoke many of the 10,000 officials from all over the world around 3 o’clock in the morning on Thursday, turned out to be less of a conversation topic than a new menace to Europe’s financial stability – Italy.

“If you talk to serious people here, everybody talks about Italy,” one European official said.

Investors and bank analysts at meetings with European decision-makers were mainly interested in Italy and how the euro zone could deal with it, officials said.

“The main topics at the meetings here are the trade war between the US and China and Italy,” a second European participant said.

“On Italy, people ask us what is likely to happen and how we are going to deal with it. They are alarmed but not in panic.”

Italy’s new, populist government wants to increase borrowing over the next three years to make good on election promises of higher spending and lower taxes.

But with a debt pile of 133 percent of GDP, the second highest in Europe after Greece, and relatively slow growth, Rome can hardly afford such luxuries.

Markets also fret that Italian banks, saddled with bad loans, and a massive amount of Italian government bonds, could face crippling losses if debt prices keep tumbling.

Financial markets reacted to the Rome’s plans with a sharp sell-off of Italian bonds – three-year yields rose to five year highs at an auction on Thursday and the benchmark 10-year paper traded at 4-1/2-year highs.

The higher deficit also blatantly breaks European Union budget rules, enforced by the European Commission, putting Rome on a collision course with EU institutions once it sends the draft budget for EU checks.

Many officials are privately concerned about the possibility of Italy sparking another sovereign debt crisis like the one triggered by Greece in 2010 that nearly destroyed the euro zone. Only Italy’s economy is almost 10 times bigger than Greece’s.

But some also caution against doomsday scenarios.

“Here in Bali, something is happening that I have seen in IMF meetings again and again. People focus on something that is difficult and then everybody talks about it and, in the end; everybody is convinced that it is much worse than before they started. That is happening now with Italy,” a third European official said.

“I am worried, but it is not quite as bad as some people here make it to be. They talk themselves into a panic,” he said.

Speaking at a panel on Thursday, Klaus Regling, the head of the euro zone’s bailout fund that would be called upon if Italy could no longer borrow at sustainable rates, noted the euro zone’s third biggest economy had inherent strengths.

Mr Regling stressed Italy had a primary and current account surplus, large private savings and that most of Italian debt was held domestically, which made capital flight less likely.

“There is no immediate danger for Italy to lose access to the markets,” Mr Regling told the panel.

But Fitch ratings agency downgraded the outlook for Italy’s debt at the beginning of September and Moody’s is waiting until the end October to complete its review for a possible downgrade of Italy’s Baa2 rating. Standard & Poor’s will assess Italy on Oct 26.

Mr Regling said he did not believe Rome would lose its investment grade rating, but other officials said that while a downgrade by two notches may be unlikely, the ratings agencies could also cut their outlook and that market reaction was difficult to predict.

“Italian debt is sustainable unless there are serious policy mistakes. At the moment they are making serious policy mistakes. You can ruin any country if you do the wrong things,” the third official said.

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