Piling on to Italy's growing mountain of worries, this evening the IMF itself warned that Europe's third largest economy would grow by less than 1% this year and only marginally faster in 2017, slashing its previous forecasts of 1.1% and 1.25% growth for the next two years, mostly as a result of the most convenient scapegoat available in Europe at the moment: Brexit (which has become to Europe as "cold weather" has been to the US for the past two years).
Christine Lagarde's organization said Italy was “recovering gradually from a deep and protracted recession”, but said the healing process was likely to be “prolonged and subject to risks”. It used its article IV consultation – an annual economic and financial health check – to stress that Italy was vulnerable to a cocktail of threats that could have knock-on effects for the rest of Europe and the world.
The IMF dour outlook may be overly generous. While economists have been racing to downgrade Italy's outlook since the British referendum, Italy's own employers' lobby Confindustria now sees growth of just 0.8% this year dropping further to 0.6% in 2017. Italy, long one of Europe's most sluggish economies, will struggle to close the gap with its peers even if recent reforms are fully implemented, the IMF report said.
The punchline: only by around 2025 will Italian output return to its 2008 peak before the global financial crisis, according to the IMF. In the same period, growth among Italy's euro zone partners is expected to rise by 20–25% above their pre-crisis levels. In other words, Italy is now in the middle of what will end up being a two-decade recession.
"The authorities thus face a monumental challenge. The recovery needs to be strengthened to reduce high unemployment faster and buffers need to be built, including by repairing strained bank balance sheets and decisively lowering the very high public debt," the report said.
“Downside risks arise from delays in addressing bank asset quality, intensified global financial market volatility – including from Brexit, the global trade slowdown weighing on exports, and the refugee influx and security threats that could further complicate policymaking,” said the IMF. “If downside risks were to materialise, regional and global spillovers could be significant, given Italy’s systemic weight.”
And speaking of Italy's weakest links, the banks, the IMF said that "risks are tilted to the downside," listing a raft of issues including the poor asset quality of Italy's banks, financial market volatility and the impact of a global trade slowdown on exports.
"If downside risks were to materialize, regional and global spillovers could be significant given Italy's systemic weight," it said.
In an assessment that will hardly help Italian bank stocks, the IMF said that the country's banks, which are saddled with some 360 billion euros of bad loans and whose share prices have fallen by more than 50 percent this year, are a particular threat to the economic outlook, the IMF said. "Unless asset quality and profitability problems are addressed in a timely manner, lingering problems of weaker banks can eventually weigh on the rest of the system," it warned.
Finally, in keeping with the tradition of having political involvement, Lagarde sided with the side of Renzi and against Merkel and Dijsselbloem, both of whom have denied Italy's repeated pleas for a bailout, saying that If EU-wide stress tests show that financial stability is at risk, there is scope for Italy to use public money to recapitalize its banks, the head of the IMF's mission to Italy, Rishi Goyal, said in a conference call.
To what extent this could be done without triggering losses to investors under newly adopted "bail-in" rules would depend on negotiations between Italy and the EU, Goyal said.
It was also unclear just who would determine what conditions would define a financial system under stress.
Italy's public debt, the highest in the euro zone after Greece's, will not fall this year as targeted by the government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the IMF said. In a forecast made before the UK referendum, the IMF said Italy's debt would edge up to a new all-time peak of 132.9 percent of gross domestic product from 132.7 percent last year.
Still, all of this may be moot if various unconfirmed rumors of Italian cashless ATMs end up being true. What is most troubling, however, if past is prologue is the desperate plea by Italy's finance minister, Pier Carlo Padoan, to restore some confidence in Italy's banks, to wit:
- PADOAN SAYS THERE'S NO LOOMING BANKING CRISIS IN ITALY
Traditionally, it is such "political" (and futile) statements such as that one - especially when everyone knows they are false - which do precisely the opposite of their intended goal, and emerge just days before the worst case scenario becomes a reality.