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Mario Draghi’s Opiate of the Markets

CHICAGO – From the standpoint of European stability, the Italian elections could not have delivered a worse outcome. Italy’s parliament is divided among three mutually incompatible political forces, with none strong enough to rule alone. Worse, one of these forces, which won 25% of the vote, is an anti-euro populist party, while another, a Euro-skeptic group led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, received close to 30% support, giving anti-euro parties a clear majority.

Despite these scary results, the interest-rate spread for Italian government bonds relative to German bunds has increased by only 40 basis points since the election. In July 2012, when a pro-European, austerity-minded government was running the country, with the well-respected economist Mario Monti in charge, the spread reached 536 basis points. Today, with no government and little chance that a decent one will be formed soon, the spread sits at 314 points. So, are markets bullish about Italy, or have they lost their ability to assess risk?

A recent survey of international investors conducted by Morgan Stanley suggests that they are not bullish. Forty-six percent of the respondents said that the most likely outcome for Italy is an interim administration and new elections. And they regard this outcome as the worst-case scenario, one that implies a delay of any further economic measures, deep policy uncertainty, and the risk of an even less favorable electoral outcome.

The survey also clearly indicated why the interest-rate spread for Italian government bonds is not much wider: the perceived backstop provided by the European Central Bank. Although investors believe that the backstop is unlikely to be used, its mere presence dissuades them from betting against Italy. In other words, the “outright monetary transactions” (OMT) scheme announced by ECB President Mario Draghi last July has served as the proverbial “bazooka” – a gun so powerful that it does not need to be used.