Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Monti will press ahead with efforts to revise the country’s labor laws this week, amid fresh warnings that the three-year-old European debt crisis is far from over.
Monti will lead talks with unions and employers in a final round of negotiations beginning tomorrow as the government seeks an agreement this week. Decision makers meanwhile warned against complacency after delivery of the final element of Greece’s 130 billion-euro ($171 billion) bailout package and the completion of the world’s largest sovereign-debt restructuring last week. “Optimism should not give us a sense of comfort or lull us into a false sense of security,” International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde said at the China Development Forum in Beijing yesterday. “We cannot go back to business as usual,” she said, urging vigilance on oil prices, debt and the risk of slowing growth in emerging markets.
An easing of the crisis offered breathing room for Monti to seek an Italian labor-market overhaul and for euro-area ministers aiming to bolster euro bailout funding before a meeting at the end of the month. Still, urgency was underscored by an IMF warning that the Greek bailout held “exceptional risks” that could prompt a “disorderly” exit from the monetary union unless additional help is prepared.
“The materialization of these risks would most likely require additional debt relief by the official sector and, short of that, lead to a sovereign default,” IMF staff wrote in a report released March 16. “In the absence of continued official support and access to” refinancing by the European Central Bank, “a disorderly euro exit would be unavoidable,” it said.
With billions of euros committed to hold Greece afloat and investors looking to see whether contagion could spread to Spain or Italy, the fragility of rescue efforts were reflected in bond yields last week. Spain’s 10-year yield climbed 20 basis points to 5.20 percent, the second weekly gain, while the yield on similar-maturity Italian debt rose three basis points to 4.86 percent.
Stocks and the euro fell, with the Stoxx Europe 600 Index down 0.5 percent at 9:45 a.m. Frankfurt time and the euro down 0.2 percent, trading at $1.3151.
Investors have been encouraged by the Italian prime minister’s efforts to rein in the country’s debt since his government of non-politicians replaced Silvio Berlusconi’s administration last year.
Monti’s labor overhaul will include a revision of firing rules and an expansion of jobless benefits. The rules, which will distinguish between workers removed without just cause and those fired for disciplinary or economic reasons, are among the most contentious. Under article 18 of the Italian labor code, employers have to compensate and rehire any worker ruled to have been fired without just cause by a labor court.
Monti met with employer and labor chiefs over the weekend and has said he wants to pass labor legislation by the end of the month. Italian Labor Minister Elsa Fornero said she will present a plan to overhaul labor laws even if negotiations with unions and employers fail to produce an agreement.
“We can’t keep going ahead and having endless discussions,” she said last night on the television program “Che Tempo Che Fa.” Fornero said that the two-month-old talks had “matured” and that an agreement could be reached.
“We’ll get an agreement within about a week, although there may be some small changes to the present proposal before it’s all done,” Erik Nielsen, chief global economist at UniCredit SpA (UCG) in London, wrote in a note to clients.
Even as focus shifted beyond Greece to other parts of the euro area, the IMF’s continuing concern about the Greek package illustrated the difficulty of implementing changes that officials in Brussels and Athens had been negotiating for months. Greece remains “accident prone,” the Washington-based institution’s staff said in the report.
The IMF reduced its contribution to the second Greek bailout because the operation poses what staff called “unprecedented financial risks” to its finances. One of the risks identified was the Greek election, to be held in April or May.
Lagarde has pushed European governments to boost their bailout fund in an effort to protect Spain and Italy from contagion. Euro finance ministers may decide to increase the region’s crisis fund to a total capacity of 692 billion euros when they meet on March 30, a euro-area official said March 16.
The ministers, who will meet in Copenhagen, are weighing what to do with the temporary European Financial Stability Facility and its permanent successor, the European Stability Mechanism. The 692 billion-euro figure represents the most attainable compromise between 500 billion euros, if policy makers change nothing, to a maximum of 940 billion euros, the official said.
On March 16, Chancellor Angela Merkel left the door open to boosting the euro-area backstop, saying a decision on reinforcing the firewall will be made before IMF meetings next month. Ministers have discussed “combination possibilities” for the EFSF and the ESM ahead of their meeting.
“What’s clear is that we need to settle on a position with a view to the IMF’s spring meeting because the topic will surely come up and because there have been offers by the international community,” Merkel said. “You can count on us setting the course by the end of March.”