Market to judge crisis moves

By Catherine Field

Italy this week faces the test of a ruthless and capricious bond market after being forced to ram through an austerity package as Europe's financial crisis deepened.

When trading opens tonight, investors will discover whether the world's seventh-largest economy has done enough to survive this latest battering for the single EU currency, or whether it will join the the so-called Pigs - Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain - in the club of euro-duds.

Until last week, Italy was considered only distantly vulnerable to contagion from the debt-ravaged Pigs. But this changed when market mistrust drove up the yields of new Italian bonds to a record high, driving up borrowing costs to unsustainable levels.

Seeking to calm the storm, Parliament raced to push through a four-year austerity package worth €48 billion ($80 billion), €8 billion more than expected, by cutting regional subsidies, launching privatisations from 2013, freezing public-sector salaries, trimming tax benefits for families and reducing pensions for the better-off.

The third biggest economy in the eurozone is being buffeted by the crisis that swirls around Greece, Ireland and Portugal, which are being bailed out by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, and around Spain.

Fear of contagion stems from credit-rating agencies' doubts about the seriousness of their austerity plans and the soundness of banks which had lent freely to the spendthrifts during the wild years of the last decade.

As the streets outside baked in the summer heat, the Italian Parliament heard doom-laden warnings.

"If we don't balance our budget, then public debt, a monster from our past, will devour our future and that of our children. The country is watching us," Economy Minister Giulo Tremonti said.

He said it was time for everyone to pull together. "It won't be like on the Titanic - the first-class passengers won't be able to save themselves."

The measures seek to cut Italy's €2 trillion debt mountain, equal to 120 per cent of GDP, among the world's highest. They also seek to trim its budget deficit from 4.6 per cent in 2010 - relatively modest by recent European standards - to 0.2 per cent in 2014.

Alongside Saturday's parliamentary vote came another bit of good news for Italy: none of its banks was among the eight out of 91 European banks that failed a "stress test" for debt exposure.

However, Italy is notorious for being a master of quick fixes but a failure when it comes to dealing with the longer-term challenge. Over the last 10 years, its economy has grown by only 2.5 per cent in real terms: structural reforms, better tax collection and productivity gains are desperately needed.

But Italy's political system has been hamstrung by lobbies and powerbrokers, the most prominent of which is the government chief himself.

"Italy needs more than austerity. Ideally this would be the removal of Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister, and his replacement by a broadly-based government led by technocrats," the Financial Times said. In the weekend before the austerity vote, Berlusconi - already facing a string of lawsuits for influence-peddling among other things - attempted to insert into the package a clause that would have allowed his company, Fininvest, to defer a €560 million fine.

There is also a lack of "social capital" - trust and solidarity - in a country that has only existed as a nation for 150 years and where there are tensions and economic disparities.

By some calculations, each household will face higher taxes or less revenue of €1000 over two years. But the burden is bound to fall harder on people in the richer north - where a powerful regional party, the Northern League, has emerged - than on those in the poor south, where tax evasion and black-market labour are deeply entrenched.

This problem could swiftly manifest itself politically, because around €15 billion of measures in the austerity package will require a second vote in Parliament to approve them in detail.

"It hits the weakest and the poorest," said Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the main centre-left opposition, the Democratic Party.

"It does nothing for growth and does not shelter us from the storm."

Meanwhile, the leaders of the 17 countries that share the single currency have dithered and bickered over how to shore up Greece and are at odds with the European Central Bank over enrolling banks and insurance companies in a second bailout for its sickly economy.

They are due to meet in a summit on Friday to discuss support for Athens.

"The spectacle displayed by the Europeans in the Greek crisis is disastrous," said Jean-Dominique Giuliani of the Robert Schuman Foundation thinktank. "Europe is dancing on the edge of an abyss."

- NZ Herald

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