The country with more laws than any other in Europe, and whose institutional failure is based squarely on its inability to enforce its laws, has promised to overcome the financial crisis by… writing more laws.
The main points of Friday’s announcement at the Berlusconi-Tremonti press conference (FT subscription needed) are constitutional amendments requiring a balanced budget and the liberalisation of an as-yet undefined list of professions.
Perhaps Berlusconi and Tremonti forgot that their country signed a European Stability and Growth Pact in 1997 — two years before joining the Euro — that limits national debt to 60 percent of GDP. Perhaps they are unaware that in Italy the law says you must wear your seatbelt and stop at zebra crossings. Perhaps they have not read the constitution they plan to amend, and all the wondrous things it already promises which do not exist in Italy (more below).
It will be a wonder if the markets buy into this bullshit beyond 9am on Monday morning.
The S&P downgrade of US debt (FT subscription needed) allowed the weekend press to spend much of its time speculating if the US faces panic on Monday. I doubt it. Everything is relative and everything, ultimately, is about the capacity to pay.
Which is why, sooner or later, either the IMF comes in or Italy defaults.
There is, I think, a reasonable case that it would be better for Italy to go for a negotiated default and leave the Euro area. An exit is perhaps the one thing that could wake Italians up. (My ideal would be to kick Italy out of the EU completely and — so long as it would concede historic culpability for the Armenian genocide — let Turkey come in at the same time. I think that might just get the message through.)
Infinitely more likely, however, is that Italy continues its historic oscillation between puerile nationalism and running to mummy, in the form of the United States or the European Union. The EU has shown it lacks the discipline to help Italy, and so in any rescue in this crisis the heavy lifting will have to be done by (mostly American) IMF staffers backed by ECB funds. Apart from the fact that most of the money will be European this time, we are I suspect looking at 1945 deja vu all over again. A bunch of foreigners come in and tell Italians how to run their lives. It is utterly depressing that this is necessary. But I hope the guys and girls at the IMF are getting ready, because it will be necessary. I will write more about the task they face when it is clear they are on their way.
Sunday evening at 11pm the ECB puts out a press release, point 6 of which appears to mean it will start buying Italian and Spanish government bonds as soon as Monday morning. Guess they believed Matilda more than me then…
MONDAY MORNING UPDATE
Mamma’s here. Those ECB folks grabbed a couple of hours sleep Sunday night, jumped out of bed, and started buying Italian and Spanish bonds (FT subscription needed) as soon as the markets opened Monday. The FT says bond yields are ‘tumbling’. Looked at the other way round, the ECB is offering far better prices than the market and grateful sellers are jumping with joy. What we want to know, of course, is the volume. We should start to get some information later in the day. My base case remains that this will be a very temporary respite.
MONDAY LUNCHTIME UPDATE
Much as I love the FT, I cannot believe how far behind the curve it is on this story today. You are better off reading Bloomberg for free:
The markets know that the ECB has neither the money nor the cojones for the job in hand and are headed south. G-7 is wittering on about hanging tough and doing everything necessary. It is time for the IMF to cancel all holiday. The end is nigh. I just wish I had cash to buy distressed equities — but I guess this is god’s way of punishing me for being a writer.
It wouldn’t be Italy if:
Some magistrate from some town you never heard of didn’t order police to raid the Milan offices of the ratings agencies because the financial crisis is clearly a satanic//American/British/etc conspiracy.
Links in Italian:
Corriere della Sera reports the presser (Note how Italy’s most cosmopolitan newspaper refers to the US Secretary of the Treasury as Mr Timothy).
An editorial in the Corriere is interesting inasmuch as it refers to ‘a wave of speculation’ and ‘irrational’ market movements. Is it irrational to sell off Italian debt? I, personally, do not think so. If Italians do, they have the private savings to fund their debt domestically, so perhaps they should buy up the paper that is being sold. It would be a solid investment for them and it would show their trust in the reforming credentials of their government… Less cynically, I was struck at a party with Italian professionals on Saturday how receptive otherwise very smart people are to the notion that Italy is indeed the victim of some new and terrible global conspiracy.
Background to Italy’s 139-article constitution — one which parliamentary commissions have three times in the era of Italy’s decline tried and failed to simplify and focus.
Official English translation of the constitution.
Italy’s constitution guarantees many wondrous things. Readers of this blog will not be surprised that my personal favourites are:
The Italian legal system conforms to the generally recognised principles of international law.
Those citizens to whom public functions are entrusted have the duty to fulfil such functions with discipline and honour.
The law provides for the reasonable duration of trials.