JPMorgan's Stunning Conclusion: An Italian Exit May Be Rome's Best Option

With Europe having a near heart attack last week, as Italian bond yields exploded amid deja vu fears that the new populist government would press the "Quitaly" button and threaten the EU with exiting the Eurozone in order to get budget spending concessions from Brussels, the discussion about Europe's record Target2 imbalances quietly resurfaced after years of dormancy. And with €426BN, Italy has the highest Target2 deficit with the Eurosystem (Spain is a close second with €377BN) any discussion about an Italian euro exit raises concerns about costs.

After all, as JPMorgan reminds us, it was only a year ago, in January 2017,  that in a letter to European Parliament MPs, ECB President Draghi made the stunning admission that a country can leave the Eurozone but only if it settles its bill first,  or as Draghi said "if a country were to leave the Eurosystem, its national central bank’s claims on  or liabilities to the ECB would need to be settled in full."

By linking the Eurozone exit cost to Target2 balances, where Germany is on the other end with a receivable balance of nearly €1 trillion, Draghi "reminded" populist politicians in Europe that a euro exit or divorce would be difficult and even more costly relative to the past because of the continued rise in Target2 balances following the ECB’s QE program.

As the chart below shows, and as we and the BIS have discussed previously, due to QE induced cross border flows since 2015, Target2 balances have exploded since the launch of the ECB's QE (and third Greek bailout in 2015), and surpassed the previous extremes from the depths of the euro debt crisis in the summer of 2012.

Here, it is worth noting that as the BIS explained last year, the Target2 balance deterioration since 2015 is different in nature than that seen during 2010-2012, it is not a merely technical consequence of QE but a reflection of investors’ preferences. At the time, during the 2010-2012 euro debt crisis period, the Target2 balance deterioration was driven by a loss of access to funding markets, inducing banks in peripheral countries to replace private sources of funding with central bank liquidity. However, since 2015 the rise in Target2 balances is more the result of the cross-border flows induced by investors’ response to QE. As JPM explains, "for example when the Bank of Italy, via its QE program, buys bonds from a German bank or a UK bank with an account in Germany, this flow causes a rise in Bank of Italy’s Target2 deficit and an increase in Bundesbank’s surplus. Or when the Bank of Italy buys bonds from a domestic investor but this domestic investor uses the proceeds to buy a foreign asset, then the Bank of Italy also builds up its liability with the Eurosystem. In both cases, the liquidity created by the Bank of Italy’s QE program does not stay within Italy, but leaks out to Germany or other jurisdictions."

Additionally, according to the ECB, the vast majority of bonds purchased by national central banks under the QE were sold by counterparties that are not resident in the same country as the purchasing national central bank, and roughly half of the purchases were from counterparties located outside the euro area, most of which mainly access the Target2 payments system via the Deutsche Bundesbank. In other words, due to investors’ preferences, the excess liquidity created by the ECB’s QE program since 2015 did not stay in peripheral countries, but leaked out to creditor nations such as Germany, which got flooded with even more liquidity.

Incidentally, this is precisely the opposite of what Mario Draghi described to policymakers and the general public was the stated intention of the ECB's QE, which was meant to boost the periphery, not the core, as it was already benefiting thanks to the Euro's fixed rate, effectively subsidizing core European exporters at the expense of peripheral nations desperate for external, or currency, devaluation.

In any case, the different nature of the Target2 balance deterioration since 2015 does not change that the fact that Target2 liabilities still represent a cost for a country exiting the euro, assuming of course that country intends to satisfy its unwritten contractual obligations.

In other words, Target 2 balances represent national central banks’ claims on or liabilities to the ECB that, according to Draghi, would need to be settled in full, and thus represented leverage that the Eurozone had over any potential quitters.

But, as JPM notes, this is where the controversy arises, because what if a departing country - most likely about to default on its external liabilities and already set to redenominate its currency - reneges on its Target2 liability? After all, not only are those intra-Eurosystem Target2 claims and liabilities uncollateralized, but any exiting country would have little to lose by burning all bridges with Europe when it gives up on using the "common currency."

In this case, a euro exit by a debtor country would represent more of a cost to creditor countries such as Germany rather than to the exiting country itself. And, as shown in the chart above, Germany sure has a lot of implicit accumulated costs, roughly €1 trillion to be precise, as a result of preserving a currency union that allowed German exporters to benefit from a euro dragged lower by the periphery, relative to where the Deutsche Mark would be trading today.

But here the analysis gets slightly more complex, as Target2 does not provide the full picture of potential costs (or benefits, assuming a scorched earth approach).

As JPMorgan writes, the Target2 liabilities of a debtor country give only a partial picture of the cost to creditor  nations from that debtor country exiting. This is because Target2 balances represent only one component of the Net International Investment Position of a country, i.e. the difference between a country’s total external financial assets vs. liabilities.  The broader metric that one must use, is of the Net International Investment Position for euro area countries and is shown in the chart below. It shows that contrary to the Target2 imbalance, Italy leaving the euro would inflict a lot less damage to creditor nations than Spain leaving the euro.

This is because Spain’s net international investment liabilities stood at close to €1tr as of the end of last year, almost three times as large as its Target2 liabilities. In contrast Italy’s net international investment liabilities were much smaller and stood at only €115bn at the end of last year, around a quarter of its €426bn Target2 liabilities. This, as JPM explains, is because Italy has accumulated over the years more external assets than Spain and should thus be overall more able to repay its external liabilities.

In other words, while gross external liabilities are similar in Italy and Spain, from a net external liability point of view, an Italian euro exit should be a lot less threatening to creditor nations than a Spanish euro exit. That said, the assets and liabilities are not necessarily owned and owed by the same parties, meaning that one cannot ignore the nearly €3tr of gross liabilities of Italian residents to foreign residents.

Ironically, the surprisingly low net international investment liabilities of Italy are the result of the persistent current account surpluses the country has been running since the euro debt crisis of 2012, and smaller current account deficits compared to Spain before the crisis. The flipside is that the current account surplus - in theory - also makes it easier for a country like Italy to exit the euro relative to a current account deficit country. This is because the higher the current account deficit of a debtor country, the higher the cost of an exit for this country as the current account deficit would have to be closed abruptly following an exit. Similarly, the higher the current account surplus of a creditor country, the higher the cost of an exit, due to a potentially higher currency appreciation. On this metric Italy sits roughly in the middle as shown below.

Most importantly, this means that as a result of Italy’s decent current account surplus, from a narrow current account adjustment point of view, its own cost of a euro exit should be relatively small.

And it's not only Italy. What is remarkable in the chart above is that, with the exception of Greece, all peripheral countries were running current account balances last year, a huge change from the large current account deficits of 2009-2010 before the emergence of the euro debt crisis. This is also shown in the next chart, which depicts this significant adjustment in the savings position of peripheral countries which effectively converged to that of core countries.

Besides Target2 and the current account, another important reflection of the improvement in the savings position of peripheral countries has been what JPMorgan calls the "domestication" of their government debt. On one hand, this represented by the sharp decline in foreign banks' exposure to Italian debt.

The offset, of course, is that as foreign banks dumped their Italian exposure, one particular hedge fund stepped up and bought it all: the European Central Bank, and in doing so, it presented Rome with even more leverage over the ECB, which ironically is headed by an Italian.

Furthermore, the next chart shows that the domestication of Euro area government bond markets has been even more acute for peripheral banks, whose share of non-domestic non-MFI bonds has been hovering close to 15% in recent years vs. a peak of close to 40% in 2006.

Here, JPMorgan points out one curious implication from these government bond market ownership trends, which is often overlooked: debt relief via Private Sector Involvement (PSI) becomes a less attractive option for an indebted peripheral country when most of the bonds are held domestically.  In other words, it is less practical to default on your sovereign debt if you are screwing far fewer foreign creditors, and most impairing your own population.

As JPMorgan puts it, "this narrows the options that a country has in terms of adjusting its economy within a monetary union."

Here some big picture observations: within a monetary union, where currency depreciation and debt monetization are not possible - unless of course, there is divorce with said union - a country has effectively two options: default and internal devaluation.

Greece, for example,  has tried both: default via the Private Sector Involvement of 2012 and internal devaluation - i.e., collapsing wages, rising current account - via the Troika’s ongoing adjustment program.

And here things get interesting, because according to JPM calculations, the various Greek defaults, also known technically as Private Sector Involvements, provided a net debt relief to Greece of around €67bn or 33% of GDP (even though Greek debt/GDP still remains stratospheric and, as the IMF will remind on regular occasions, is unsustainable.

Applying the same haircut and PSI assumptions (i.e. only general government bonds are subjected to haircuts), the net debt relief to Italy from haircuts on non-domestic holders would be only €267bn or 15% of GDP. In other words, such a cost/benefit analysis of an effective default debt haircut suggests that a Greek-style PSI would be rather unattractive for Italy. Of course, one could imagine a wider restructuring than the Greek PSI, e.g. by including loans and regional or local government debt, but surely such an option would be more difficult to negotiate or keep voluntary and would present greater legal challenges. There are, of course, other far more structural challenges, namely that it is virtually impossible that what worked for Greece, will never work for Italy, where the associated numbers are orders of magnitude higher.

So with little to gain from a default, as indicated in the above analysis, Italy is left with just one adjustment option: internal devaluation. Unfortunately, as JPM calculates, this internal devaluation is not tracking well in the case of Italy. This can be seen in the chart below, which shows the changes in unit labor costs, current account balances
and unemployment rates since 2009.

It also shows that Greece and Ireland have made the biggest adjustment so far, i.e. biggest decline in unit labour costs and current account deficits, while Italy has instead seen a rise in unit labour costs since 2009. In other words, ten years since the Lehman crisis and six years since the euro debt crisis and Italy’s labour cost adjustment has not even begun, and if it does, it is safe to say that Rome faces a political crisis the likes of which it has not seen in a long time.

Putting this all together, the lack of any internal devaluation so far and the unattractiveness of a Greek style PSI leave limited options to Italy to adjust within the monetary union.

This, coupled with Italy's massive Target2 imbalance which becomes an instant asset the moment the country decides to exit the Eurozone and never repay it much to the chagrin of Mario Draghi, together with a decent current account surplus - one which would only soar should Italy revert to the lira supercharging the country's exports, which as explained above reduces the own cost of exiting the euro from a narrow current account adjustment point of view, will likely continue to make the country vulnerable to populist pressures to exit the monetary union.

That is the gloomy, if stunning, JPMorgan conclusion, although as a hedge, the bank also notes that the road to Quitaly, as the Greek fiasco in 2015 showed all too clearly, would be anything but easy and neither Brussles nor the ECB would go down without a fight. JPMorgan also notes that the above take also ignores other potential costs from an exit highlighted by the market reaction this week, such as the possibility that it could trigger a broader crisis and, if the Greek script is repeated, capital controls.

Then again, if Italy ever got to the point where lines of panicked depositors form outside Italian banks a la Greek summer of 2015, one can wave goodbye to the euro and the European experiment.