Italy’s 2020 budget at big risk of breaching EU fiscal regulations - GulfToday

Italy’s 2020 budget at big risk of breaching EU fiscal regulations


Customers at a fruit and vegetable shop in Castelbuono, Italy. Associated Press

The European Commission said Italy’s draft budget for next year could be in breach of European Union fiscal rules and it asked for clarification from the Italian government, in a letter sent to Finance Minister Roberto Gualtieri.

The EU’s move is seen as a necessary step, given Italy’s plans to spend more to boost growth, although it is unlikely to lead to a repeat of the standoff between Brussels and Rome seen last year.

Back then the Commission forced Italy’s former eurosceptic government to amend its budget to avoid sanctions after a prolonged tussle that hit markets.

The letter, dated Oct.22 and signed by economic commissioners Valdis Dombrovskis and Pierre Moscovici, said a preliminary assessment of the 2020 draft budget showed that it fell short of EU fiscal recommendations to reduce expenditure.

“Italy’s plan does not comply with the debt reduction benchmark in 2020,” the letter said.

Last week, Moscovici in an interview with Reuters preannounced that Italy’s budget could require some work, but was far from being seen as a major problem.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of UniCredit has a plan to revive his company’s ailing share price — make it less Italian. Italy’s biggest bank is looking at whether it can distance itself from its home country’s stagnating economy and fractious politics by putting some of its most prized assets under one roof in Germany, people familiar with the matter said.

Jean Pierre Mustier will unveil on Dec.3, as part of his new business plan, a scheme to set up a new sub-holding company in Germany to house the bank’s foreign operations, the sources said.

By keeping its assets in Germany, Austria, Eastern Europe and Turkey away from Italy, UniCredit could reduce their Italian identity - and associated credit rating - making their funding cheaper, the sources said.

Mustier, a Frenchman appointed in July 2016 to reinvigorate the then weakly capitalised Milanese bank, has sold businesses, cut jobs and shut branches to strengthen UniCredit’s balance sheet. Sources earlier this year said the bank had put on ice a possible bid for German rival Commerzbank.

But UniCredit, which describes itself as pan-European, operates in 14 countries and makes just over half of revenues outside Italy, is still essentially perceived by investors as a risky Italian institution.

The new plan is an indication of Mustier’s belief that the Italian economy is holding back UniCredit’s share price and risks pushing up the bank’s funding even more if the economic outlook deteriorates.

“Who can say for sure that Italy’s debt won’t be downgraded to junk?” said one source, speaking on condition of anonymity and describing the corporate reorganisation as an insurance policy if Italy’s economy continues to perform poorly.

“The bank has to be ready for that kind of possibility,” the person said, noting Moody’s currently rates the eurozone’s third biggest economy — burdened with the second highest debt to GDP ratio in the single currency bloc — just one notch above non-investment grade. Germany has a triple-A rating with all major credit ratings agencies.

Italian banks - which are struggling with bad loans, a sluggish economy and political instability - have traditionally been seen as a proxy for the country’s sovereign debt because they hold vast amounts of government bonds.

UniCredit trades at 0.5 times book value, among the lowest levels in the industry, despite having a better than average return on equity. Its share price has fallen 30% since April last year, wiping out much of the rally it had after Mustier took charge. To place a $3 billion, five-year bond in November last year, when a sell-off in Italian assets sent borrowing costs for the country’s banks soaring and shut all but the strongest names out of the funding market, UniCredit had to pay a steep 7.8% coupon. “UniCredit is by size one of Europe’s leading banking groups but, because of its Italian roots, investors associate it with the Italy risk to an extent which is in my opinion excessive given its geographical diversification,” Stefano Caselli, banking and finance professor at Milan’s Bocconi University.

“It’s clear that UniCredit pays a price both in terms of regulatory capital and cost of funding for being Italian,” he said. “So a diversification strategy aimed at allowing the bank to link its cost of funding to the countries where it is present makes total sense.”


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