Italy looks like it is in bad shape. It is openly defying the EU’s budget rules by running an excessive deficit, and what’s worse, it looks likely to be downgraded to junk status by ratings agencies. Moody’s already downgraded the country to Baa3, its lowest investment grade rating and just one rung above junk status. Yields have been swinging wildly on the country’s bonds as a result.
FINSUM: We are quite worried about the implications if Italy gets downgraded to junk, as it could mean lots of funds need to sell the bonds because of their mandates. What kind of sell-off could that spark?
Have you heard of the new “doom loop”? The term may seem vaguely familiar, and follows in a long line of sensationalist financial terms. Just like in its origin during the European debt crisis, the term once again refers to a European state sinking under the crushing weight of its own debt. You guessed it, Italy. The doom loop refers to the European bank habit of loading up on sovereign bonds, and in turn creating a negative reinforcment cycle where bonds fall in value, which leads to serious concerns over a bank meltdown, which then exacerbate the original economic fears. That is exactly what is now occurring after Italian bonds sold off steeply following the country’s wild budget approval.
FINSUM: Italy is one of the very largest debt markets and economies in the world, and a full scale meltdown there would surely impact global markets, even the Teflon-coated US stock market.
Investors in stocks will be familiar with the market’s habit of focusing on an issue for a week or two, getting anxious, and then moving on almost completely once things looks even half-resolved. That is exactly what happened with Italy’s debt crisis a few months ago. However, this problem looks likely to rear its ugly head again. Italy is the third largest debt market in the world, and its looks dangerously close to imploding. That may be why Trump offered Italy funding to help its situation. The big fear is a near-term budget vote where the country’s parties are considering a package that would offer a flat tax rate and universal income for the left, all while ballooning the deficit to 7% of GDP, way above the EU limit of 3%.
FINSUM: Italy is currently led by a pair of parties that hate the Euro, so it seems likely that they may tempt fate with this kind of package. However, there is a potential compromise in the works.
The big recovery after the huge losses in Italy might finally be underway. While downward pressure on Italian assets had subsided, there is now a big rally happening. The catalyst is that the country’s finance minster has just pledged that Italy will stay in the Euro, helping ease the market’s largest worry about the political crisis in Rome. The minister also pledged to avoid financial instability.
FINSUM: Italy’s two-year bond has already seen its yield fall 100 bp! That is quite a response. To be honest we doubt this pledge amounts to much, but it is good signaling for the market.
Investors hang onto your hats, a big fixed income rout might be coming. While it was easy to write Italy’s big bond losses off to its recent political crisis, the Wall Street Journal is arguing that all risky bonds may be in for a reckoning. There are a couple reasons. One is that just as in Italy’s two-year bond, many fixed income securities may hit a “double bottom”, which could lead to serious losses. But more fundamentally, many investors are now starting to view bonds higher up the quality spectrum more favorably, which means the market may suffer a significant “risk-off” period. Global high-yield bonds are down almost 4% already this year.
FINSUM: Our bigger worry than the points mentioned here is that as safer bonds start to get better yields from rising rates, there is less and less incentive to buy junk. That is a major change from the paradigm of the last few years.