A Financial Nightmare For Italy: The Yield Curve For Italian Bonds Is Turning Upside Down

What we are all watching unfold right now is a complete and total financial nightmare for Italy.  Italian bond yields are soaring to incredibly dangerous levels, and now the yield curve for Italian bonds is turning upside down.  So what does that mean?  Normally, government debt securities that have a longer maturity pay a higher interest rate.  There is typically more risk when you hold a bond for an extended period of time, so investors normally demand a higher return for holding debt over longer time periods.  But when investors feel as though a major economic downturn or a substantial financial crisis is coming, the yield on short-term bonds will often rise above the yield for long-term bonds.  This happened to Greece, to Ireland and to Portugal and all three of them ended up needing bailouts.  Now it is happening to Italy and Spain may follow shortly, but the EU cannot afford to bail out either of them.  An inverted yield curve is a major red flag.  Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much hope that there is going to be a solution to this European debt crisis any time soon.

We are witnessing a crisis of confidence in the European financial system.  All over Europe bond yields went soaring today.  When I finished my article about the financial crisis in Italy on Tuesday night, the yield on 10 year Italian bonds was at 6.7 percent.  I awoke today to learn that it had risen to 7.2 percent.

But even more importantly, the yield on 5 year Italian bonds is now sitting at about 7.5 percent, and the yield on 2 year Italian bonds is about 7.2 percent.

The yield curve for Italian bonds is in the process of turning upside down.

If you want to see a frightening chart, just look at this chart that shows what has happened to 2 year Italian bonds recently.

Do phrases like “heading straight up” and “going through the roof” come to mind?

This comes despite rampant Italian bond buying by the European Central Bank.  CNBC is reporting that the European Central Bank was aggressively buying up 2 year Italian bonds and 10 year Italian bonds on Wednesday.

So what does it say when even open market manipulation by the European Central Bank is not working?

Of course some in the financial community are saying that the European Central Bank is not going far enough.  Some prominent financial professionals are even calling on the European Central Bank to buy up a trillion euros worth of European bonds in order to soothe the markets.

Part of the reason why Italian bond yields rose so much on Wednesday was that London clearing house LCH Clearnet raised margin requirements on Italian government bonds.

But that doesn’t explain why bond yields all over Europe were soaring.

The reality is that bond yields for Spain, Belgium, Austria and France also skyrocketed on Wednesday.

This is a crisis that is rapidly engulfing all of Europe.

But at this point, bond yields in Europe are still way too low.  European leaders shattered confidence when they announced that they were going to ask private Greek bondholders to take a 50% haircut.  So now rational investors have got to be asking themselves why they would want to hold any sovereign European debt at all.

There is no way in the world that any rational investor should invest in European bonds at these levels.

Are you kidding me?

If there is a very good chance that private bondholders will be forced to take huge haircuts on these bonds at some point in the future then they should be demanding much, much higher returns than this.

But if bond yields continue to go up in Europe, we are going to quickly come to a moment of very great crisis.

The following is what Rod Smyth of Riverfront Investment Group recently told his clients about the situation that is unfolding in Italy….

“In our view, 7% is a ‘tipping point’ for any large debt-laden country and is the level at which Greece, Portugal and Ireland were forced to accept assistance”

Other analysts are speaking of a “point of no return”.  For example, check out what a report that was just released by Barclays Capital had to say….

“At this point, Italy may be beyond the point of no return. While reform may be necessary, we doubt that Italian economic reforms alone will be sufficient to rehabilitate the Italian credit and eliminate the possibility of a debilitating confidence crisis that could overwhelm the positive effects of a reform agenda, however well conceived and implemented.”

But unlike Greece, Ireland and Portugal, the EU simply cannot afford to bail out Italy.

Italy’s national debt is approximately 2.7 times larger than the national debts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal put together.

Plus, as I noted earlier, Spain is heading down the exact same road as Italy.

Europe has simply piled up way, way too much debt and now they are going to pay the price.

Global financial markets are very nervous right now.  You can almost smell the panic in the air.  As a CNBC article posted on Wednesday noted, one prominent think tank actually believes that there is a 65 percent chance that we will see a “banking crisis” by the end of November….

“There is a 65 percent chance of a banking crisis between November 23-26 following a Greek default and a run on the Italian banking system, according to analysts at Exclusive Analysis, a research firm that focuses on global risks.”

Personally, I believe that particular think tank is being way too pessimistic, but this just shows how much fear is out there right now.

It seems more likely to me that the European debt crisis will really unravel once we get into 2012.  And when it does, it just won’t be a few countries that feel the pain.

For example, when Italy goes down many of their neighbors will be in a massive amount of trouble as well.  As you can see from this chart, France has massive exposure to Italian debt.

Just like we saw a few years ago, a financial crisis can be very much like a game of dominoes.  Once the financial dominoes start tumbling, it will be hard to predict where the damage will end.

Some believe that what is coming is going to be even worse than the financial nightmare of a few years ago.  For example, the following is what renowned investor Jim Rogers recently told CNBC….

“In 2002 it was bad, in 2008 it was worse and 2012 or 2013 is going to be worse still – be careful”

Rogers says that the reason the next crisis is going to be so bad is because debt levels are so much higher than they were back then….

“Last time, America quadrupled its debt. The system is much more extended now, and America cannot quadruple its debt again. Greece cannot double its debt again. The next time around is going to be much worse”

So what is the “endgame” for this crisis?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is saying that fundamental changes are needed….

“It is time for a breakthrough to a new Europe”

So what kind of a “breakthrough” is she talking about?  Well, Merkel says that the ultimate solution to this crisis is going to require even tighter integration for Europe….

“That will mean more Europe, not less Europe”

As I have written about previously, the political and financial elite of Europe are not going to give up on the EU because of a few bumps in the road.  In fact, at some point they are likely to propose a “United States of Europe” as the ultimate solution to this crisis.

But being more like the United States is not necessarily a solution to anything.

The U.S. is 15 trillion dollars in debt and extreme poverty is spreading like wildfire in this nation.

No, the real problem is government debt and the central banks of the western world which act as perpetual debt machines.

By not objecting to central banks and demanding change, those of us living in the western world have allowed ourselves to become enslaved to gigantic mountains of debt.  Unless something dramatically changes, our children and our grandchildren will suffer under the weight of this debt for as long as they live.

Don’t we owe future generations something better than this?

Arrivederci Berlusconi

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.  In just a matter of days, two of Europe’s most venerable leaders have been toppled.  George Papandreou was the third member of the Papandreou dynasty to be prime minister of Greece.  Silvio Berlusconi had dominated Italian politics for nearly two decades.  But now they are both heading out the door and the international media have been reporting on their resignations with the kind of enthusiasm that is normally reserved for sporting events.  “Down goes Papandreou!  Down goes Berlusconi!”  If you didn’t know better, you would almost be tempted to think that some of the recent news reports were describing a boxing match.  But this is what happens when debt problems spiral out of control.  It is the leaders who take the fall.  So will the resignations of Papandreou and Berlusconi help anything?  Of course not.  Europe is still headed for a financial collapse of epic proportions.

As I wrote about recently, it has been the fumbling of the Greek debt crisis by European leaders which has set the stage for the burgeoning financial crisis in Italy to go to a whole new level.

Once the Greek debt deal was announced, I warned that it would shatter confidence in the sovereign debt of the rest of the PIIGS and it would cause their bond yields to soar.

That is exactly what has happened.

The yield on 10 year Italian bonds (probably the most important financial number in the world at the moment) is now up to 6.7 percent.

Never before in the euro era has the yield on Italian bonds been as high as we have seen this week.

So why is this important?

Well, the reality is that Italy simply cannot afford to service its massive national debt when yields are this high.

We are officially in the danger zone.

Carl Weinberg, the chief economist at High Frequency Economics, recently said the following about what would happen if Italian bond yields go up into the 8 to 10 percent range….

“If it has to pay those yields to finance itself, Italy is dead, and the sovereign crisis just blew up”

So watch that number very carefully over the next few months.

Italy is being called “too big to fail, too big to save”.  There is no way that Europe can afford Italy to crash, but there is also no way that the rest of Europe can put together enough money for a full scale bailout of Italy.

So there is panic in the air.

The Italian government is in a state of near chaos and over the past couple of weeks we have seen Berlusconi’s coalition break down.  Now Berlusconi has agreed to resign, and the future of Italian politics is murky at best.

The following is how a Reuters article described the agreement for Berlusconi step down….

Berlusconi confirmed a statement from President Giorgio Napolitano that he would step down as soon as parliament passed urgent budget reforms demanded by European leaders after Italy was sucked into epicenter of the euro zone debt crisis.

The votes in both houses of parliament are likely this month and they would spell the end of a 17-year dominance of Italy by the flamboyant billionaire media magnate.

Many believe that the departure of Berlusconi is going to pave the way for brutal austerity measures to be imposed on the Italian people.

Suddenly, it very much feels like we are watching a replay of what has happened in Greece over the past couple of years.  Just check out the following excerpt from a recent article in the London Evening Standard….

The Italians feel they’ve been humiliated by having to accept that monitors from the IMF will be arriving in the country this week to oversee a rise in pension ages, a sell-off of state assets and new rules to make jobs less secure.

Does that not sound like exactly what happened in Greece back near the beginning of their crisis?

In Greece, brutal austerity measures demanded by the EU and the IMF plunged the country into a depression, tax revenues plummeted, Greek debt exploded to even higher levels, bond yields soared into the stratosphere and the EU and the IMF demanded even more austerity measures be implemented.

Is the same sad story going to play out in Italy?

The Italians are definitely going to agree to some pretty significant budget cuts.  But if bond yields keep rising, they are going to wipe out all of the savings from the budget cuts and then some.

This is why I keep preaching about the horror of the U.S. national debt over and over and over.  If you don’t deal with it when you can, eventually interest rates rise to unbearable levels and a horror show quickly unfolds.

Anyway, right now Italy has a debt to GDP ratio of 118 percent.  If they keep expanding that debt it is going to result in a financial nightmare, but if they try to implement strict austerity measures it is also going to result in a financial nightmare.

They are damned if they do and they are damned if they don’t.

Of course we should not forget about Greece.

The EU has been freaking out for quite a while about what to do about tiny little Greece.

Now that George Papandreou has been kicked to the curb, it looks like Lucas Papademos is going to be the next prime minister of Greece.

Papademos previously served as the governor of the Greek central bank, as a vice president of the European Central Bank and as a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

In other words, he would be the ideal choice of the international banking community.

Not that anyone is going to be able to do much for Greece at this point.  Greece is a financial basket case, and unless someone gives them gigantic piles of money for free that is going to continue to be the case.

A year ago, the yield on 2 year Greek bonds was a bit above 10 percent.  Today, the yield on 2 year Greek bonds is over 100 percent.

If you want to see what a financial meltdown looks like, just check out what is happening in Greece.

The rest of Europe is in panic mode too.  For example, France is desperate to keep their AAA credit rating.  In an article for the Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard described the austerity measures that France is implementing in an attempt to head off a debt crisis of their own….

The belt-tightening plan — the second package since August, taking total cuts to €112bn — include a 5pc super-tax on big firms, a rise in VAT on restaurants and construction, and cuts on pensions, schools, health, and welfare. It is the latest squeeze in a relentless campaign of fiscal tightening across the eurozone.

In the end, all of this is too little, too late.

Europe is heading for a date with destiny.  They have spent themselves into oblivion and now they are going to pay the price.

Some members of the financial community fear that a full-blown crisis could erupt at any moment.  For example, according to Business Insider, Colin Tan of Deutsche Bank recently said that he believes that it is possible that “we could be in full crisis mode” by the time the week ends….

Its not inconceivable that we could be in full crisis mode by the end of this week. The situation with Italy feels increasingly like one that has little chance of materially improving until some
extreme pressure is put on someone to act. It may not come to a head this week but the signs are not good that we can avoid an extreme situation emerging soon.

For those of you that are freaking out about now, don’t worry too much.  A full-blown crisis is not going to happen this week.

But time is running out.

And when Europe comes apart, it is going to have a dramatic impact on the United States as well.

According to an article in the Financial Post, the Federal Reserve made the following statement in a report about a survey that it just released….

“About one-half of domestic bank respondents, mostly large banks, indicated that they make loans or extend credit lines to European banks or their affiliates or subsidiaries”

Big U.S. banks have a lot of exposure to European debt and to European banks.  When the financial dominoes start to fall, a lot of those dominoes are going to be in the United States.

One of the biggest dangers to be concerned about are all of the credit default swap contracts that U.S. banks have written on European debt.  Just check out what a recent article posted on the website of MSNBC had to say about that….

U.S. banks have written about $400 billion in CDS contracts on European sovereign debt, according to the Bank for International Settlements. Those payouts would be triggered if Greece or Italy defaults. Because financial institutions are not required to report their CDS holdings, little is known about which banks or investment firms are on the hook, and for how much.

As I have written about previously, there is a very good chance that the world could be facing a massive derivatives crisis at some point in the next five to ten years.

If you hear the news talk about a “problem with derivatives” or a “derivatives crisis” then you will want to pay very close attention.

Over the past 30 years, the global financial system has constructed a gigantic mountain of debt, risk and leverage unlike anything the world has ever seen before.

At some point the whole thing is going to come crashing down.

When it does, it is going to affect the entire globe.

A huge storm is coming.

Get prepared while you can.

 

Uh Oh – Italy Is Coming Apart Like A 20 Dollar Suit

Did anyone really think that Italy would be able to get through this thing without needing a bailout?  Just when you thought that things in Europe could get back to normal for a little while, here comes Italy.  On Friday, there was a bit of a “mini-panic” as investors started dumping Italian financial assets.  European officials are concerned that the sovereign debt crisis that has ravaged Greece, Ireland and Portugal will now put the Italian economy through the wringer.  European Council President Herman Van Rompuy has called an emergency meeting for Monday morning.  He is denying that the meeting is about Italy, but everyone knows that Italy is going to be discussed.  European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso along with a host of other top officials will also be at this meeting.  If it does turn out that Italy needs a bailout, it is going to change the entire game in Europe.

What is going on in Italy right now is potentially far more serious than what has been going on in Greece.  Italy is the fourth largest economy in the European Union.  If Italy requires a bailout, the rest of Europe might not be able to handle it.

An anonymous European Central Bank source told one German newspaper the following on Sunday….

“The existing rescue fund in Europe is not sufficient to provide a credible defensive wall for Italy”

The source also added that the current bailout fund “was never designed for that“.

Italy has already implemented austerity measures.

This was not supposed to happen.

But it is happening.

This latest crisis was precipitated by a substantial sell-off of Italian financial assets on Friday.  An article posted by Bloomberg described the pounding that the two largest Italian banks took….

UniCredit SpA (UCG) and Intesa Sanpaolo SpA (ISP), Italy’s biggest banks, fell to the lowest in more than two years in Milan yesterday as contagion from Europe’s debt crisis threatened to spread to the region’s third-largest economy.

UniCredit plunged 7.9 percent, the biggest decline since March 30, 2009, while Intesa dropped 4.6 percent. Both hit lows not seen since the period when markets were emerging from the crisis spawned by the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

Unfortunately, this is just the continuation of a trend that has been going on for a while.

When you look at them as a group, the stocks of the five largest Italian banks have lost 27% since the beginning of 2011.

That is not a good sign.

Also, investors are starting to dump Italian government debt.  Reuters says that the yield on 10 year Italian bonds is approaching the danger zone….

The spread of the Italian 10-year government bond yield over benchmark German Bunds hit euro lifetime highs around 2.45 percentage points on Friday, raising the Italian yield to 5.28 percent, close to the 5.5-5.7 percent area which some bankers think could start putting heavy pressure on Italy’s finances.

The Italian national debt is now up to about 120 percent of GDP.  The Italian government would be able to manage it if interest rates were very, very low.  But unfortunately they are rising fast and if they get too much higher they are going to become suffocating.

As I have written about previously, government debt becomes very painful once you take low interest rates out of the equation.  For example, if Greece could borrow all of the money that it wanted to borrow at zero percent interest, it would not have a debt problem.  But now the yield on 2 year Greek bonds is over 30 percent, and there is not a government on the face of the earth that can afford to pay interest that high for long.

Unfortunately for Italy, this could just be the beginning of rising interest rates.  Just recently, Moody’s warned that it may be forced to downgrade Italy’s Aa2 debt rating at some point within the next couple of months.

If things continue to unravel in Italy, all of the credit agencies may downgrade Italy sooner rather than later.

The frightening thing about Italy is that a financial crisis has a way of exposing corruption, and there are very few countries that can match the kind of corruption that goes on in Italy.

As a child, I had the chance to live in Italy.  I love Italy.  The people are friendly, the weather is great, the architecture is amazing and the food is spectacular.  I will always have great affection for Italy and I will always cheer for the Italian national team when the World Cup rolls around.

However, I also know that corruption is deeply ingrained into Italian culture.  It is simply a way of life.

Just check out the prime minister of Italy.  Silvio Berlusconi is the consummate Italian politician.  He is greatly loved by many, but it would take days to detail all of the scandals that he has been linked to.

At this point, Berlusconi has become a parody of himself.  Each new sex scandal or financial scandal just adds to his legend.  Italy is one of the only nations in Europe where such a corrupt politician could have stayed in office for so long.

Not that the U.S. government is much better.  Our government becomes more corrupt with each passing year.

But the point is that if a financial collapse happens in Italy and people start “turning over rocks” it could turn up all sorts of icky stuff.

So what is Europe going to do if Italy needs a bailout?

Well, they are probably going to have to fire up the printing presses because it would probably take a whole lot more euros than they have right now.

The truth is that the EU has now entered a permanent financial crisis.  You have a whole bunch of nations that have accumulated unsustainable debts and that cannot print their own currencies.  The financial system of the EU as it is currently constructed simply does not work.

Some believe that the sovereign debt crisis will eventually cause the breakup of the EU.  Others believe that this crisis will cause it to be reformed and become much more integrated.

In any event, what just about everyone can agree on is that the financial problems of Europe are not going away any time soon.  For now, EU officials are keeping all of the balls in the air, but if at some point the juggling act falters, the rest of the world better look out.

A financial crash in Europe would be felt in every nation on earth and it would be absolutely devastating.  Let’s hope that we still have some more time before it happens.

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