the Italian election–investment significance

I’ve always found the Italian stock market–yes, there is one–to be a waste of time for foreigners.  There aren’t very many interesting companies (I’ve only held Tod’s and Bulgari in my portfolios, other than when I’ve taken on turnarounds).  Also, to my mind the market there is run for the benefit of political and industrial insiders, not for the average Italian, and certainly not for investors from other parts of the world.  Even if I could have tapped into the underground flow of inside information, it’s not clear it would be usable without violating US securities laws.

Anyway, the current election issue isn’t about the viability of Italian stocks.  It’s about the viability of the euro.

setting the stage

Italy is the third-largest economy in Euroland, after Germany and France.

Italy has a very inflexible, high-cost, slow-growing economy.  Many of its industries are under competitive attack, not only from elsewhere in Europe but from emerging Asian giants like China, as well (think:  clothing, leather goods and furniture).  Rather than allow/force adjustment to the new reality, the Italian government has borrowed lavishly and spent with abandon to help keep an uncompetitive economy above water.  For a long time, although bond investors saw the government debt piling up–it’s now around 140% of GDP, they assumed that Euroland as a whole was guaranteeing repayment.

Then the Greek crisis erupted.   …and bondholders began to work out that:

(1) maybe Euroland wasn’t really guaranteeing Rome’s borrowings, and

(2) the debt was so big that maybe Euroland couldn’t make good even if it wanted to.

Seeing the credit markets closing their doors to Italy, the country ousted the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who had overseen the creation of much of the mess, and replaced him with a “technocrat,” Mario Monti.  (“Technocrat” means combination hatchet man and fall guy–someone who would make necessary, but politically suicidal, reforms and then fade into the woodwork.)

Monti did heroic work.  He wasn’t able to address sky-high labor costs, but he did restore government spending to what’s called a primary surplus, meaning that government income is covering all expenses, ex interest on debt.  The country’s government bond mountain is no longer growing; it’s starting, very slowly, to shrink.  To put this in context, this is more than Washington has had the courage to do.

the election

Monti got nudged out and an election was called to form a replacement government.  It was held last Sunday/Monday.

Four main parties:

–the Democrats; labor-backed, reform-friendly;  led by Pier Luigi Bersani

–People of Freedom; roll back reforms, start spending again; Berlusconi (a figure sort of like a cross between Nixon and Rupert Murdoch, without the redeeming qualities)

–Civic Choice; pro-reform; Mario Monti (who decided not to fade into the woodwork)

–Five Star; get rid of the political establishment, default on government debt, leave the euro; Beppe Grillo (like Jon Stewart, only taken seriously).

pre-election polls 

Polls from fifteen days ago, the latest allowed by law, predicted the Democrats would get the most votes (45%?)  and would form a coalition with Civic Choice (15%?).  Grillo might get 15%.  With 25%, Berlusconi would be left out in the cold.

“instant” exit polls

In Italy these are done by phone.  They’re not reliable.  But they showed the expected outcome.

as it stands now

Later polls, and preliminary voting results, show a different picture.

The Democrats will win the lower house outright.

In the Senate, however, it looks like this, according to USA Today:

Bersani          32%

Berlusconi          30%

Brillo          24%

Monti          14%.

In other words, the two pro-reform parties, led by Bersani and Monti, would fall short of a majority in the the upper house, so the coalition they had been planning on forming would be useless.  Why?    …both Brillo and Berlusconi did a lot better than expected.

where to from here?

No one knows for sure.

None of the others want to link up with Berlusconi.  That leaves a possible Bersani-Brillo combination.  But it’s not clear they have enough in common to form a coalition.

It may be that another election is on the cards.

investment significance

From the perspective of a global investor with no intention of buying Italian equities–Prada IPOed in Hong Kong, after all–it isn’t, strictly speaking, necessary for me to see Italy solve its structural problems.  All I need is for the country to limp along in its current state of denial, on the road to insignificance.  I might even be able to stomach a rollback of some of the Monti reforms.   That’s providing Italy doesn’t repudiate its debt, leave the euro, turn its primary surplus into a deficit or otherwise punch a big hole in the bottom of the euro boat.

At this moment, I consider the stuff on my “bad” list as highly unlikely to occur.  Nevertheless, absent a miracle solution to the Italian Senate partisan logjam, we’re going to go through a period of Euroland jitters until Italy has a new government.  My guess is that the shaking will mostly take the form of euro weakness.  Also, dedicated European equity investors will likely make their portfolios a bit more defensive, and will probably get the funds for doing so by aggressively trimming recent outperformers.

With little European exposure myself, I’m content to remain on the sidelines for now, with an eye out to possibly add shares of Europe-based multinationals that may come under selling pressure.

Note:  One minor conceptual worry–not one for today or tomorrow, though.  I’ve been channeling my inner Trotsky for a while now.  I’ve already consigned Japan and Europe to the dustbin of history–with a potential double dose of bin for Greece and Italy.  If I  keep on going like this, at some point there’s more dustbin than anything else.    That would be bad.

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