Nervous Italians are starting to funnel money across the border into Switzerland, worried that an epic clash with the EU could set off a Greek-style banking crisis and a slide towards default.

"There is fear creeping in," said Massimo Gionso, head of family wealth managers CFO Sim in Milan.

"People are concerned that if we get into the same situation as Greece, they might find the banks are closed and they can take out only €50 ($88.11) a day from cash machines. They don't want to risk it," he told The Daily Telegraph.

Read more: Italy on brink of banking crisis as debt costs spiral

Advertisement

"These are families with savings of €200,000 or €300,000," he added.

"They want to set up accounts in Lugano or Chiasso across the border in Ticino where everybody speaks Italian. The big players have already got their money out."

Gionso said this capital flight has nothing to do with tax evasion. The authorities are notified and all transactions are above board. It is linked to fears of euro break-up as the insurgent Lega-Five Star government tears up the eurozone fiscal rule book.

"I think there has been a lot of media terrorism over this, both inside Italy and abroad," he said.

"There is not going to be a sovereign default in Italy or a run on the Italian banks. It is just absurd. But this is what people are worried about, and I am just doing my job."

Italians are worried that an epic clash with the EU could set off a Greek-style banking crisis. Photo / Getty Images
Italians are worried that an epic clash with the EU could set off a Greek-style banking crisis. Photo / Getty Images

The Swiss group Albacore Wealth Management told Italy's Il Sole it had received a wave of inquiries from Italians with €5 million to €10m in liquid capital. The super-rich are already a step ahead.

"The big fish have been organising the expatriation of their wealth for some time," it said.

Fabio Fois from Barclays said Italy's underlying fiscal profile is deteriorating at an alarming pace.

"The risk of Italy sliding into an unstable debt spiral has increased," he said.

Fois said risk spreads on Italian 10-year bonds could rise "sharply higher", perhaps punching through the 400 basis points.

The trigger may be action by Moody's and Standard & Poor's later this month. Markets have already priced in one-notch cut in the rating but not a further negative watch as well, which would bring "junk" status into sharp focus.

Simon Derrick from BNY Mellon said the drama feels like the onset of eurozone crisis in 2011.

"This all has a very familiar pattern. Once the spreads blow up and reach 400, you reach a tipping point and the crisis takes hold," he said.

For now the spreads are hovering near the first big pain threshold of 300 points. This is already hurting banks, which hold €387 billion of state debt.

Read more: Will spiralling crisis end with Italy leaving the eurozone?

They face mark-to-market losses as yields rise. This erodes their capital buffers, forcing them to curtail lending. Or they might have to sell some of their bonds. Either action can quickly turn into a self-feeding "doom-loop" as the banks the sovereign state take each other down.

Intesa Sanpaulo said yesterday that it could withstand 400 points without having to raise capital.

Any sign that Italians might be pulling money from bank accounts is ominous. David Owen from Jefferies said Italian deposits held rock solid through the eurozone crisis.

"It was nothing like Greece where there was wholesale liquidation," he said. "So far we haven't seen any of that in the Italian data."

However, figures from the Bank of Italy are released with a delay.

Net capital outflows were a record €72b in the two months of May and June. That reflected moves by big investors, not deposit flight.

There was a recovery over the summer when finance minister Giovanni Tria held out an olive branch. He has since been shoved aside. The September data may be sobering.

Global funds have loosely assumed that the European Central Bank will shore up Italy if need be.

But the bank is legally prohibited from buying Italian bonds in any debt crisis, unless Rome applies for help from the eurozone bail-out fund (ESM).

This comes with draconian conditions and requires a vote in the German Bundestag.

"There is no chance at all that the current Italian government would accept it," said Lorenzo Codogno from LC Macro Advisers.

This changes the calculus for investors. Complicating the picture further, the ECB is winding down quantitative easing and will stop all purchases of EMU debt at the end of the year.

Mario Draghi, the ECB's chief, told Rome over the weekend that there would be no soft rescue and warned of trouble "if people start to put in question the euro".

"The clear message is that there is no ECB 'put'," said Derrick.

"In the end, I'm sure the ECB will come to the rescue because Italy is simply too big to fail. So in a way, the balance of power lies with Rome."

Hardliners in the Lega-Five Star alliance think the EU is bluffing over the budget and will give ground.

Lega economics spokesman Claudio Borghi told The Telegraph last week that the EU can expect "Armageddon" if it tries to force Italy to its knees.

"They will find that the crisis is not Greece squared, but Greece cubed," he said. "This would be a thousand times worse."

However, the Lega surge in the polls has peaked. Criticism is mounting within Italy. The EU has made no secret of their strategy of using "market discipline" - or "spread warfare" - to break resistance.

There is no sign yet that Rome is willing to back down.

Matteo Salvini, the Lega strongman, remained defiant yesterday. "We were elected to change things," he said.

"We don't feel bound by rules decreed by Brussels, which so many governments have ignored, starting with France, Germany, and Spain."

Jean-Claude Trichet, former President of the European Central Bank, said the stand-off must be handled with extreme care. Photo / AP
Jean-Claude Trichet, former President of the European Central Bank, said the stand-off must be handled with extreme care. Photo / AP

The government missed its EU deadline for submitting its budget plans, delaying the draft for another day after a coalition dispute over the terms of a tax amnesty.

Yet the contours are agreed. The planned deficit will be 2.4 per cent of GDP next year, a loosening of 0.8 per cent compared to a tightening of 0.6 per cent expected under the Stability Pact.

Barclays says it will in reality be at least 3 per cent. A global downturn would push it through 4 per cent in short order and trigger a debt sustainability crisis.

Brussels is in an invidious position. Italy is the first big test of the revamped rules. Failure to act will further erode the confidence of Germany and the Nordic states in the disciplinary structure of monetary union.

Yet a knife-fight with Salvini almost guarantees the very crisis that the EU most fears.

Jean-Claude Trichet, the ECB's president during the EMU crisis, told Corriere della Sera that this stand-off must be handled with extreme care, implicitly rebuking those in Brussels and Berlin who talk loosely of debt restructuring. "It would be a catastrophe," he said.