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Italy Asks IMF to Oversee its Debt Reduction Efforts
Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has asked for international oversight of his efforts to slash the eurozone’s second-largest debt, even as his unraveling coalition threatens efforts to build a wall against Europe’s debt crisis. Berlusconi’s government asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to assess its debt-reduction progress, and turned down an offer of financial assistance.
“It hasn’t been imposed, it was requested,” Berlusconi said. The IMF will carry out quarterly “certifications” of the euro region’s third-largest economy, he said, noting that the current sell-off of Italian debt is “a temporary trend” even as the nation’s borrowing costs soared to record highs. Berlusconi is under mounting pressure as Italy tries to avoid yielding to the sovereign-debt crisis.
Italy’s 10-year borrowing costs are getting dangerously close to the seven percent level that forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal to ask for bailouts. The yield on the nation’s benchmark 10-year bond surged to a euro-era record of 6.404 percent, the highest since the creation of the single currency. “If the current Greek tragedy is not to turn into an Italian tragedy, with far more serious and far-reaching consequences for the eurozone, Berlusconi must resign immediately,” Marc Ostwald, a fixed-income strategist at Monument Securities Ltd., said. Berlusconi may be “remembered as the architect of Italy’s descent into an economic inferno.”
IMF managing director Christine Lagarde hopes that quarterly monitoring will start by the end of November to verify that the reforms Berlusconi promised are implemented. “It’s verification and certification if you will, of implementation of a program that Italy has committed to,” she said. “It’s one of the best ways to have an independent view…to verify that promised measures are actually implemented.” She agreed that Italy doesn’t need IMF funding. “The problem that is at stake — and that was clearly identified both by the Italian authorities and its partners — is a lack of credibility of the measures that are announced,” according to Lagarde. “The typical instrument that we would use is a precautionary credit line. Italy does not need the funding that is associated with such instruments so the next best instrument is fiscal monitoring, which is what we have identified.”
Lagarde isn’t certain that the proposed reforms are credible. “The problem that is at stake and that was clearly identified both by the Italian authorities and by its partners is a lack of credibility of the measures that were announced,” Lagarde said. Additionally, the IMF will provide funds to stimulate Italy’s economy, although under strict conditions.
Will Berlusconi’s regime survive this crisis? “Historically, technocrat governments in Italy have been able to pass pro-growth structural reforms, including politically difficult labor market reforms,” said Barclays Capital analyst Fabio Fois. Governments such as those led by Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Lamberto Dini – who had served as central bankers — in the early 1990s saved Italy from financial crises even worse than the present one. “I think the political parties would have a big incentive to go through the painful policy adjustment now, before the next election due in 2013, so that whoever wins won’t have to do it later,” Fois said.
Berlusconi seemed almost nostalgic for the days when the lira was Italy’s currency. “You don’t get much in your supermarket trolley for €80 today, whereas you used to get a lot for 80,000 lire,” he said.
He insisted that Italy’s economy is generally prospering. “The restaurants and vacation spots are always full, nobody thinks there is a crisis,” he said, noting that, considering its low household debt levels, Italy has Europe’s second-strongest economy, after Germany and was stronger than France or the U.K. The country’s €1.9 trillion in public debt, the equivalent of nearly 120 percent of GDP, was a legacy problem, had not grown in the past 20 years, and had been consistently serviced, Berlusconi said.
Berlusconi admitted that his government “might have made a mistake” in assuming the public debt was sustainable without more aggressive fiscal and reform action. When asked what he thought about frequent warnings from European Union partners that Italy demonstrate credibility with the promised reforms, Berlusconi said the criticism reflected prejudice about past Italian behavior. “If we don’t enact the reforms Italy will be in trouble,” he said. “But we will enact them.”