Italy on Thursday flatly dismissed the EU’s more pessimistic outlook for the Italian economy as the IMF warned Rome should take steps to lower debt.
The populist government in Rome is under massive pressure since the European Commission on October 23 rejected its 2019 budget, giving the ruling coalition in Rome until November 13 to make changes.
Failing that, Brussels could put Italy into something called the ‘excess deficit procedure’, a complicated process that could eventually lead to fines and provoke a strong market reaction.
The Italian government — a coalition of the far-right League and anti-establishment Five Star Movement — plans to run a public deficit of 2.4 per cent of GDP, three times the target of its centre-left predecessor.
Scrutinising those plans, the European Commission on Thursday said Italy’s deficit will reach 2.9 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product next year, much bigger than the 1.7 per cent in its previous forecast.
‘Our projections differ somewhat from those of the government. This is largely due our growth projections which have been more conservative,’ European Economics Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said.
The Italian government’s 2019 budget is based on an estimate of annual growth of 1.5 per cent — a figure considered optimistic by the IMF, which has forecast only one per cent, and the Commission, which expects 1.2 per cent.
Crucially, the EU also believes Italy will only grow by 1.2 per cent in 2019, whereas Rome’s 2019 budget is based on an estimate of annual growth of 1.5 per cent.
‘We regret to note the Commission’s technical failure,’ Italian finance minister Giovanni Tria said in a statement, slamming ‘an inadequate and partial analysis’ of his proposed 2019 budget.
‘The fact remains that the Italian parliament has authorised a maximum deficit of 2.4 per cent for 2019 that the government, therefore, is committed to respecting,’ Tria said.
Italian leaders insist the low growth rate is all the more reason to kickstart the economy through a spending spree, but Brussels fears the rising deficit could further feed Italy’s exploding debt.
Italy already owes 2.3 trillion euros ($2.6 trillion), a sum equivalent to 131 per cent of its GDP.
Even if Brussels fails to punish Rome, many assume the markets will, with the fallout possibly spreading to other European countries that are only just recovering from the eurozone debt crisis that peaked early this decade.
In its autumn forecast for Europe, the IMF said Italy — along with Turkey — ‘should prioritise measures that reduce fiscal deficits toward their medium-term targets and lower debt.’
All eyes are on the market’s ‘spread’ — or difference between yields on 10-year Italian government debt compared to those in Germany — which has more than doubled since mid-May, when negotiations to form the populist coalition government in Rome began.
The EU’s warning to Italy came as it also warned that growth in the eurozone would slow in 2019 and beyond, citing global uncertainty and heightened trade tensions.
Italy’s problems arise as fears of an economic slowdown in Europe have risen over the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and trade tremors sparked by US president Donald Trump’s protectionist policies.
In its latest forecasts unveiled Thursday, the European Commission expects growth in the currency bloc of 2.1 per cent this year, followed by 1.9 per cent in 2019, which is lower than the 2.0 per cent predicted in its last assessment in July.
Growth is expected to continue to decline in 2020 to 1.7 per cent.
Other indicators are also pointing to weak growth in the coming quarters, raising doubts about plans by the European Central Bank to wind down its massive stimulus to the European economy.
But ECB chief Mario Draghi has downplayed risks to the eurozone despite ‘weaker momentum’ that he said would not undermine his confidence in growth.
Last month, the ECB confirmed plans to end ‘quantitative easing’ (QE) or mass bond-buying at the end of December, but will keep interest rates at historic lows until late next year.
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