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?

Is The End Of The Euro In Sight?

The future of the euro is hanging by a thread at the moment.  The massive debt problems of nations such as Greece, Italy and Portugal are dragging down the rest of the Europe, and the political will in northern Europe to continue to bail out these debt-ridden countries is rapidly failing.  Could the end of the euro actually be in sight?  The euro was really a very interesting experiment.  Never before had we seen a situation where monetary union was tried without political and fiscal union along with it on such a large scale.  The euro worked fairly well for a while as long as everyone was paying their debts.  But now Greece has collapsed financially, and several other countries in the eurozone (including Italy) are on the way.  Right now the only thing holding back a complete financial disaster in Europe are the massive bailouts that the wealthier nations such as Germany have been financing.  But now a wave of anti-bailout sentiment is sweeping Germany and the future of any European bailouts is in doubt.  So what does that mean for the euro?  It appears that there are two choices.  Either we will see much deeper fiscal and political integration in Europe (which does not seem likely at this point), or we will see the end of the euro.

That status quo cannot last much longer.  The citizens of wealthy nations such as Germany are becoming very resentful that gigantic piles of their money are being poured into financial black holes such as Greece.  In fact, it is rapidly getting to the point where we could actually see rioting in the streets of German cities over all of this.

All of this instability is creating a tremendous amount of fear in world financial markets.  Nobody is sure if Greece is going to default or not.

Without more bailout money, Greece will most certainly default.  If anyone does not think that one domino cannot set off a massive chain reaction, just remember what happened back in 2008.

Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers set off a chain reaction that was felt in every corner of the globe.  All of a sudden credit markets froze up because nobody was sure who had significant exposure to bad mortgages.

Today, the entire world financial system runs on debt, so when there is a credit crunch it can have absolutely devastating economic consequences.  The financial crisis of 2008 helped plunge the world into the greatest recession that the globe had seen since the 1930s.

In the old days, nations such as Greece that got into too much debt would just fire up the printing presses and cover over their problems with devalued currency.

Well, those nations that are using the euro simply cannot do that.  The government of Greece cannot simply zap a whole bunch of euros into existence in order to solve their problems.

Right now, major European banks are holding massive amounts of debt from various European governments on their balance sheets.  Most of these European banks are also very highly leveraged.  Even a moderate drop in the value of those debt holdings could wipe out a number of these banks.

The head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, recently told Der Spiegel the following….

“There has been a clear crisis of confidence that has seriously aggravated the situation. Measures need to be taken to ensure that this vicious circle is broken”

Unfortunately, what Lagarde said was right.  You see, the financial system in Europe is a “confidence game” and a “crisis of confidence” is all that it would take to bring it down because it does not have a solid foundation.

Just like the U.S. financial system, the financial system in Europe is a mountain of debt, leverage and risk.  If the winds start blowing the wrong direction, the entire thing could very easily come tumbling down.

Over the past couple of weeks, the outlook in Europe has become decidedly negative.  For example, one senior IMF economist is now actually projecting that Greece will experience a “hard default” at some point in the coming months….

I expect a hard default definitely before March, maybe this year

If Greece defaults, that would mean that the bailouts have failed.  That would also mean that several other nations in Europe would be in danger of defaulting soon as well.

The consequences of a wave of defaults in Europe would be absolutely staggering.  As mentioned above, major banks in Europe are deeply exposed to sovereign debt.

Regarding this issue, Deutsche Bank Chief Executive Josef Ackermann recently made the following stunning admission….

“It’s stating the obvious that many European banks would not survive having to revalue sovereign debt held on the banking book at market levels.”

Yes, you read that correctly.

There are quite a few major European banks that are in imminent danger of collapse.

Even though there hasn’t been any sovereign defaults yet, we are already starting to see massive financial devastation in Europe.  Just check out some of the financial carnage from Monday….

*The stock market in Germany was down more than 5%.

*The stock markets in France and Italy were down more than 4%.

*Royal Bank of Scotland was down more than 12%.

*Deutsche Bank was down more than 6%.

*Societe Generale was down more than 8%.

*Italy’s UniCredit was down more than 7%.

*Barclays was down more than 6%

*Credit Suisse was down more than 4%.

*The yield on 2 year Greek bonds was up to 50.38%.

*The yield on 1 year Greek bonds was up to 82.14%.  A year ago it was under 10%.

Just like in 2008, banking stocks are leading the decline.  We have another major financial crisis on our hands and there is no solution in sight.

As the financial world becomes increasingly unstable, investors are flocking to gold.  In case you have not noticed, gold is up over $1900 an ounce again.

So what comes next?

Well, on Wednesday Germany’s constitutional court is scheduled to announce its verdict on the legality of the latest bailout package for Greece.  The court is expected to rule that the bailout package is legal, but if they don’t that would be really bad news for the euro.

However, whatever the court rules, the reality is that the turbulent political atmosphere inside Germany is probably a much bigger issue as far as the future of the euro is concerned.

Right now, Germans are overwhelmingly opposed to more bailouts.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political party just suffered a resounding defeat in local elections in Germany, and many within her own coalition are withdrawing support for any more bailouts.

This is going to make it very difficult to save the euro.  At this point, Germans have very little faith in the currency.

Just check out what Bob Chapman of the International Forecaster recently wrote about the current atmosphere in Germany….

76% of Germans say they have little or no faith in the euro, up from 71% two months ago. This is what we have been stating for ten years. Long-term 69% to 71% have never wanted the euro. The poll is not at all surprising. The Germany people are saying we have put up with the euro and euro zone for long enough – we want out now.

Germans are also very much against even deeper European economic integration.  For example, recent polling found that German voters are against the introduction of “Eurobonds” by about a 5 to 1 margin.

But Germans are not the only ones that are tired of the euro.  The countries of southern Europe have come to view the euro as a “straightjacket” that keeps them from having the financial flexibility that they need to deal with their debts.

Many people living in southern Europe consider the euro to be a financial instrument that allows nations such as Germany to have way too much power over them.  Just check out what Professor Giacomo Vaciago of Milan’s Catholic University recently had to say….

“It’s clear that the euro has virtually failed over the last ten years, even if you are not supposed to say that. We pretended to be Germans, but it was an illusion”

But if the bailouts fall apart and the euro collapses, we are going to see nations such as Greece fall into total financial collapse.

Just how desperate have things become in Greece?  Just consider the following excerpt from a recent article by Puru Saxena….

In Greece, government debt now represents almost 160% of GDP and the average yield on Greek debt is around 15%. Thus, if Greece’s debt is rolled over without restructuring, its interest costs alone will amount to approximately 24% of GDP. In other words, if debt pardoning does not occur, nearly a quarter of Greece’s economic output will be gobbled up by interest repayments!

Without help, there is no way that Greece is going to be able to avoid a default.

Sadly, Greece is far from the only major financial problem in Europe.  Portugal, Ireland and Italy also have debt to GDP ratios that are well above 100%.

As mentioned earlier, this is a massive problem for the financial system of Europe, because nearly all of the major European banks are leveraged to the hilt and they are massively exposed to government debt.

If you don’t think that this is a problem, just remember what happened back in 2008.

Back then, Lehman Brothers was leveraged 31 to 1.  When things turned bad, Lehman was wiped out very rapidly.

Today, major German banks are leveraged 32 to 1, and those banks are currently holding a massive amount of European sovereign debt.

Overall, the entire global banking system has a total of 2 trillion dollars of exposure to Greek, Irish, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian debt.

If European countries start defaulting, the dominoes are going to start falling and things will get really messy really quickly.

There are two things that could keep defaults from happening.

Number one, Germany and the other wealthy nations in the eurozone could just suck it up and decide to pour endless bailouts into nations such as Greece and Italy.

Number two, the nations of the eurozone could opt for much deeper economic and political integration.  That would mean a massive loss of sovereignty, but it would save the euro, at least for a little while.

Right now, the political will for either of those two choices is simply not there.  That does not mean that the political elite of Europe will not try to ram through some sort of a plan, but the reality is that Germans are already so upset about what has been going on that they are about ready to riot in the streets.

Yes, the end of the euro is a real possibility.

If the euro does collapse, it would likely cause a financial panic that would make 2008 look like a Sunday picnic.

So what do all of you think about the future of the euro?  Please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts below….

 

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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