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Upcoming votes could test the eurozone's stability again

Associated Press Associated Press 24/11/2016 By DAVID McHUGH, AP Business Writer
Italian premier Matteo Renzi waits for Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang at Rome's Palazzo Chigi, Government office, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016. (Angelo Carconi/ ANSA via AP) © The Associated Press Italian premier Matteo Renzi waits for Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang at Rome's Palazzo Chigi, Government office, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016. (Angelo Carconi/ ANSA via AP)

FRANKFURT, Germany — The eurozone could be in for a rough few months.

A rapid-fire series of elections in Italy, the Netherlands and France plus Britain's upcoming move toward leaving the EU could buffet the 19-country monetary union — just as it is struggling to finally leave behind its troubles with slow growth and high debt.

Analysts say it will take more than one unexpected outcome to provoke a renewed eurozone crisis that goes beyond temporary market turbulence around the time of the votes.

But multiple surprises and falling dominoes cannot be ruled out.

That's especially true after the unexpected votes in Britain for Brexit and for Donald Trump in the United States on Nov. 8.

"Since the 9th of November, times have changed," said Carsten Brzeski, chief German economist at ING-DiBa bank.

"You can walk through all these political events one by one," he said. "I think each has the potential to derail the eurozone, to further disintegrate the eurozone, to maybe possibly even lead to a breakup of the eurozone — but only in the worst, worst-case scenario."

Here are the key dates:

— On Dec. 4, Italians vote on constitutional changes that would limit the power of the upper house and make it easier for governments to pass legislation. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said he will resign in case of a "no" result. New elections, if held, could bring to power the Five Star Movement, which has said it wants to hold a referendum on euro membership.

— On March 15 in the Netherlands, the anti-immigration, anti-EU Party for Freedom stands to do well in national elections and could influence the stance of any new government.

— By the end of March, British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to formally start Britain's talks to leave the EU, which are due to last at least two years. Market and business confidence could take a hit if it looks like Britain could leave without some privileged access to the EU single market.

— On April 23 and May 7, France holds presidential elections. Far right National Front leader Marine Le Pen is expected to at least make the second round. She wants France to leave the EU. And unlike Britain, France is a member of the euro, and its exit from that would likely be even more disruptive.

Polls indicate Le Pen doesn't have much of a chance of winning. Problem is, that's what many people thought about Britain's EU vote and Trump's chances in the U.S. election.

So Le Pen is making pro-EU politicians and economists more nervous than before.

Should investors outside Europe be worried? It's hard to tell. Craig Mackenzie, senior investment strategist at Aberdeen Asset Management, says the lack of a plunge in stocks after the U.S. and U.K. votes "is teaching the market that political shocks are not necessarily the start of the next bear market... The market is harder to shock."

While a less likely Le Pen victory would be "an immediate existential threat" to the EU, the Italian troubles require multiple steps to materialize and "won't be a short, sharp shock."

Right now, companies and investors are hardly pricing in a new crisis. Eurozone business activity is strengthening and German economic confidence is at a 31-month high. Overall, Europe is enjoying moderate growth, following a crisis over high debt in 2009-2012 that pushed Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus into needing bailout loans and raised the possibility the euro would break up.

Commerzbank chief economist Joerg Kraemer says the bigger risk is in Italy. He cautions that there would have to be several triggers over a period of months: first, a "no" in the referendum, then new elections, and then a win by the Five Star Movement. Kraemer and other analysts think a caretaker government is more likely, at least at first. But regular elections would be held in 2018 in any case.

Kraemer argues that a Five Star government would likely spend more money and bust the eurozone's rules limiting deficits, adding more debt to Italy's already heavy burden of 135 percent of economic output.

More deficit spending and debt "will create a huge conflict with the fiscal rules and the European Commission," Kraemer said. "And in such an environment there is a significant risk that private bond investors will go on strike and refuse to buy Italian government bonds. That means there is a significant risk that we will see a return of the southern debt crisis if the Five Star movement continues to lead in the polls and there are early elections."

Italy also faces potential disruptions in coming weeks from troubled bank Monte dei Paschi di Siena. The bank is trying to offload bad loans and raise new capital. If it fails, it could need a bailout from the government. But in that case new EU rules would trigger losses for some bond holders, including many small retail savers — political poison.

The currency union has new safeguards against turmoil. Banking supervision was toughened and moved to the EU level, lessening the chance that bad banks will bring down government finances.

And the European Central Bank has been buying government bonds to raise inflation and growth. In countries like Italy, that has driven bond prices up and interest yields, which move opposite to bond prices, down. That's key because it was exorbitant bond market rates in 2011 that threatened Italy's financial solvency.

The ECB also has a special program dubbed outright monetary transactions, or OMT, under which it could buy a country's bonds to prevent it from facing ruinous borrowing costs.

But the ECB's bond purchases will have to end at some point. Right now the earliest end is March, 2017, although that may be extended by three or six months at a Dec. 8 meeting.

And Kraemer warns that deploying the OMT could strengthen support for anti-euro parties in Germany and the Netherlands, where stimulus skeptics argue such assistance only undermines the will to reform shaky government finances.

Right now, it's all hypothetical.

"I still hope that by the end of this period, we have a couple of elected leaders who can get across more integration at the eurozone level," said Brzeski.

"The negative scenario is, I'm wrong with at least one of these outcomes, we get a move toward more nationalist politics and policies in Europe, and we get a gradual further disintegration. "

"And then it would be more than noise."

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