What to Make of Italy’s Astonishing Bond Selloff

Perhaps investors are complacent about the dangers Italy poses

By James Mackintosh

Italian two-year bonds had by far their worst day since at least 1989. Photo: Piaggesi/Fotogramma/Ropi/Zuma Press 


Market reporting is prone to hyperbole, but Tuesday’s Italian bond selloff was truly astonishing. Short-dated bonds that can usually be treated as a close proxy for cash turned toxic, and bondholders showed serious panic. Prices fell and yields on short-dated bonds rose as much or more than when the euro was fighting for survival in 2011 and 2012. 
The reaction in other markets was muted by comparison. Sure, stocks and the flakier end of European government bonds sold off, and there was a flight to the safety of U.S. Treasurys. But this wasn’t much more than a run-of-the-mill bad day. Portugal’s 2-year bond yield rose 0.23 percentage point and Spain’s was up 0.12 percentage point, both their worst day since early last year. The 10-year U.S. Treasury had its best day in almost two years amid a flight to safety.


By contrast, Italian 2-year bonds had by far their worst day since at least 1989, when Thomson Reuters data starts. The yield leapt more than 1.5 percentage points to 2.4% at the close of European hours, with more selling later.

There are three possible interpretations for why markets outside Italy haven’t sold off more.

The first is fundamental: Europe’s weak economies have been transformed since they were threatened by contagion from Greece in the last euro crisis. Ireland is now regarded as a safe “core” country, Spain is growing fast and even Portugal has taken the medicine. Perhaps this time round the trouble can be contained.


MAMMA MIA, HERE WE GO AGAIN
Italy's 2-year bond had its biggest one-day rise in yield in decades.

Source: Thomson Reuters





The second is technical: The lack of significant contagion is because investors elsewhere regard the Italian move as overdone, the result of hedge funds and others piling in to sell bonds in a market that became suddenly illiquid. Buyers stayed on the sidelines because a market that has overshot can always overshoot even further in the short run, but the bond yield isn’t a reflection of the real risks to Italy.

The third is the most troubling. Perhaps investors are complacent about the dangers Italy poses, relying on the European elite to once again come up with a way to keep truculent crowd-pleasing politicians under control, as they have so often in the past decade.

Italian bonds are cheaper (have a higher yield) because of the fear that the country will re-denominate its euro bonds into devalued lira, default on them, or both, just as it was for Greece in 2011. Greece, of course, went on to default on its bonds and briefly use capital controls to suspend convertibility of its euros into the euros used in the rest of the region, while no other country followed suit.

It is true that Europe’s weak countries—bar Italy—aren’t as weak as they were in the last crisis. Banks have been recapitalized or restructured, competitiveness improved and current account deficits turned into surpluses. Ireland, Portugal and Spain are all far stronger than they were. Italy, meanwhile, has bumbled along; as Capital Economics’ Chairman Roger Bootle points out, every other country in the region except Italy has become more competitive against Germany since 2011. 
Further, Europe has a habit of doing the impossible at the last minute, offering both fiscal and eventually monetary bailouts during the last crisis despite them having previously been deemed impossible and possibly ilegal.


Still, it is hard to see how the single currency could survive an Italian exit without other countries following it out the door. The country is the third-biggest borrower in the world, with €2 trillion ($2.33 trillion) of bonds and bills outstanding. Much of its debt is domestically owned, but the sheer size of Italy’s debt pile means a default would be catastrophic both for its own and Europe’s banks. It would also create political fractures that could threaten the European Union, ironic for an organization founded by the Treaty of Rome.

Economic chaos in Italy after a devaluation would be all but guaranteed, and surely hurt growth in the rest of Europe – although such chaos might persuade reluctant euro members that the pain of staying is worthwhile. Even worse from the point of view of markets would be if Italian euro exit went well, encouraging anti-Europeans in other countries to push for a repeat.

More convincing is the idea that Italy’s bond market is exaggerating the panic because it has become so hard to trade. The gap between the yield at which people were willing to buy and sell on the 2-year bond was exceptionally wide at 0.46 percentage point, according to Tradeweb, backing up the idea that liquidity had evaporated. As one hedge-fund manager shorting Italian bonds put it, there has been a “buyer’s strike” because foreigners were unwilling to buy, while domestic investors were scaling back holdings.

The problem with the technical explanation based on liquidity is that it could go either way. If buyers return and the yield falls, all well and good. But often in markets the first panicked move turns out to be right, after a period of consolidation. If the speculators are correct about the danger of the newly installed technocratic government rapidly being replaced by anti-EU populists, bond yields this high or higher might well be justified. That will be the true test of contagion.

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