Italy Bond Yields Spike as Rome's Budget Clash Stirs Echoes of EU Debt Crisis

Italy's benchmark borrowing costs hit a four-and-a-half year high Tuesday as investors continued to trim government bond holdings amid concern that the country's populist administration is on a collision course with EU officials in Brussels that echoes the worst of the region's 2012 debt crisis.

Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio told the Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper Tuesday that his government could breach the EU's 3% deficit target next year as it spends billions more than anticipated in order to meet various election commitments. The outlay is also expected to include billions more for improvements in Italy's road and transport infrastructure following the deadly collapse of a busy commuter bridge earlier this month that killed 43 people in the northern city of Genoa.

Rome has also clashed with Brussels over the handling of migrants, mostly from Africa, landing on Italian shores as part of an overall crackdown on immigration by the right-of-center Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has accused the EU of shirking its responsibilities.

The clashes suggest the government, a coalition of the leftist Five Star Movement and the anti-EU League Party, could draft a 2019 budget plan that would add around €100 billion ($116 billion) to the country's staggering €2.3 trillion debt pile and create a budget deficit that's as high as 5% of GDP for the coming year, a figure that would be more than six times the previous target agreed with Brussels.

Capital flight from Italy accelerated in August. The morning the yield on 10 year govt bonds reached a new peak since the current administration was formed, hitting a 4.5 year high. All happening as Rome-Brussels relations deteriorating and ECB moves to wind down bond purchases. pic.twitter.com/HBsBMmFUNT

— Dan O'Brien (@danobrien20) August 28, 2018

The debate has pushed benchmark 10-year Italian government bond yields to 3.209% in early European trading Tuesday, the highest since March 2014, while Italy's FTSE MIB stock index fell 0.85% to extend its decline since the new government was first established in late May to around 15%.

In fact, the extra yield, or spread, that investors demand to hold Italian government debt instead of paper issued by Spain, has risen to 1.76%, the highest since the peak of the region's 2012 debt crisis. The spread to triple-A rated German bunds was quoted at 2.82% Tuesday, an astonishing gap in borrowing costs between the region's first and third-largest economies.

Italy's swelling budget deficit -- as well as its dangerously high debt-to-GDP ratio of 132% -- suggest its 2018 growth rate of 1.2% could be difficult to achieve should investors dump domestic assets amid the ongoing tension between Brussels and Rome. Business sentiment in the manufacturing sector, for example, hit a 20-month low of 104.8 this month, according to ISTAT, Italy's national statistics office, ISTAT, in data published earlier Tuesday.

Italy's banks are also lumbered with more than €383 billion in government bonds, according to European Central Bank data published today, after having increased their holdings for each of the past seven months. Foreign investors, meanwhile, have dumped more than €58 billion in June and July. 

Italy's sovereign debt pile is more than €2.3 trillion, all of it denominated in a currency that it has to earn or borrow. That has made the pile nearly impossible to reduce, given the country's poor productivity, which has contributed to three recessions since the global financial crisis in 2008.

However, for a host of reasons, global investors have either been insulated from Italy's political and economic failings either by the European Central Bank's myriad liquidity efforts or its vow to do "whatever it takes" to save the euro from an existential attack in foreign exchange markets.

That said, should contagion take hold and Italy's bond yields rise to the 7.3% peak reached during the height of the region's sovereign debt crisis in late 2011, European officials could be forced to deploy one -- or both -- of their most powerful backstops: the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) or the the ECB's Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT).

The ESM, a centrally controlled rescue fund backed by around €700 billion in paid-in capital from Eurozone member states, has around €400 billion left over from previous loans to Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus and would likely fail to stablize markets should Italy's $2.5 trillion economy require a significant bailout.

That could leave European Central Bank President Mario Draghi as Italy's lender-of-last-resort.

Draghi is the principal architect of the Outright Market Transactions, or OMT program, an untested "bazooka" of central bank firepower that can buy unlimited amounts of government bonds in the secondary market in order to prevent an "unwarranted" tightening of any country's fiscal mechanics.