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Equity markets are being complacent on Italy & Europe

According to James Butterfill, Head of Research & Investment Strategy at ETF Securities, the Italian referendum yesterday signified a worrying trend for the rest of Europe in confirming the rise of populist parties in the EU, and particularly important given that 70% of Europe have elections in 2017.

It is not clear what will happen in Italy but we feel the markets are being complacent, as in the longer term it could threaten Italy’s EU membership. It may also be difficult to form a coalition with consequent repercussions for bank recapitalisations. 7 out of the top 10 banks in Italy have non-performing loans (NPLs) as a percentage of total loans above 14%, having not fallen much in recent years, in stark comparison to the rest of Europe where NPLs have fallen to 4.7%, and the US where they are only 1%. This comes at a time when these banks need to raise US$20 billion in the coming months to help cover these losses and turning to households to participate in bank recapitalisations is likely to further stoke populism.

Looking at polling data in many European countries highlights that populist parties are either leading or gaining in the polls. The agendas of these populist parties have focused on a break from the incumbent political establishment. With the parties tending to over-promise, developing simple policies with mass appeal, irrespective of their ability to be delivered. There do seem to be some key drivers of today’s rise in populism, primarily high inequality, generated by stagnant economic and wage growth alongside increasing cultural diversity. Although inequality in Italy is much higher than Austria which may go some way to explain why the Austrian elections didn’t result in a far right government.

As inequality and cultural diversity issues cannot be reversed overnight and so many large countries in Europe have elections, we believe uncertainty is likely to remain elevated in the coming year, favouring safer, lower volatility assets. Whilst rising populism doesn’t always end up with the political incumbent losing, some populist policies are typically implemented to assuage the disenfranchised, which are likely to have an inflationary impact. The tail risks are high.

James Butterfill , December 2016

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