Inside Renzi’s Referendum: What’s at Stake In Italy?

Matteo Renzi press conference, Rome
Matteo Renzi (pictured), the current centre-left Prime Minister of Italy, has gambled his political viability on a landmark referendum designed to reform and streamline the country’s political process.

On 4 December 2016, Italian voters will be asked the following question:

Do you approve a constitutional law that concerns abolishing the bicameral system (of parliament), reducing the number of MPs, containing the operating costs of public institutions, abolishing the National Council on Economy and Labor (CNEL), and amending Title V of the Constitution, Part II?

While this question seems rather technical and perhaps a bit insignificant, the political ramifications are drastic. Matteo Renzi, the centre-left Prime Minister of Italy, has stated that the referendum is so important that he would resign if the voters did not answer “yes”. That pledge has led many to in the country to view the question as a referendum on Renzi’s governance. At this moment, the polls signify a toss-up, with both “Yes” and “No” garnering 50% of the projected vote.

The referendum aims to bring stability to a rather tumultuous democracy that has had 63 premierships in the last seven decades. Both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, the two houses in Italy’s bicameral legislature, have an equal amount of power in government. This often to leads to a deleterious amount of gridlock, as both chambers must approve each bill in an identical form.

The proposed referendum would reduce the number of Senate members from 315 to 100 and give the institution far less power than the Chamber of Deputies. It also seeks to eliminate Italy’s 110 provinces—regions that typically have overlapping duties and whose governments serve as yet another layer of bureaucracy. The National Council for Economics and Labour, a group of 64 councillors who advise the government, would also be abolished under the proposal.

These reforms would greatly streamline the Italian political process and most citizens would be foolish to oppose them ceteris paribus. They are slated to save the Italian government €500 million. With Renzi’s injudicious decision to personalise the referendum, however, many view it as a conduit to oppose the current government that has failed to deliver economic growth. The country’s national debt has reached 132.7% of GDP and the entire banking sector is facing heightened risk due to debt accumulated during anaemic economic growth.

Renzi is now even facing dissent within his own party; Ignazio Marino, the former mayor of Rome, and Gianni Cupelo, the President of the Democratic Party, are now campaigning against the referendum. In another section of the political spectrum, Beppe Grillo’s syncretic populist Five Star Movement seeks to mount a significant political victory if the referendum fails, and is has now reached parity with the Democrats in the polls.

If “the referendum is about the future of the country, not about mine,” as Renzi told Radiotelevisione italiana last Friday, then he should seek to make the referendum focus on ameliorating the pressing issues in the Italian political system, not his electoral viability.

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Outlook Worsened: Negative Rates from the Federal Reserve? Really?

Federal Reserve Janet Yellen
On 4 November 2015, Janet Yellen purported that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) would be willing to lower the federal funds rate into negative territory if US economic conditions deteriorated further.

The United States faces many problems — a massive welfare state, complicated tax code, oversized government, over-regulated economy, and bloated education system. After a flurry of astigmatic regulation designed to promote home affordability created a $4 trillion housing bubble and ensuing financial crisis, most would hope that a nation as powerful as the US would finally get its act together. That pretence was simply false.

Since 16 December 2008, the FOMC has maintained a policy of 0% interest rates on federal funds, overnight funds traded between banks to maintain their deposits at the Fed. This was aimed to push interest rates far below Wicksellian (equilibrium) level and create another asset bubble. While this would result in another recession after a burst, the Fed has not been an organisation known to be concerned with long-term stability since the passage of the mandates set forth in the Federal Reserve Reform Act of 1977.

In addition, the FOMC maintained a policy of quantitative easing from 2008 to 2014. The policy  administered $3.5 trillion in asset purchases in the secondary market, with a goal of suppressing yields on government bonds to shift the allocations in investors’ portfolios to riskier assets such as stocks. Considering that the DJIA has more than doubled since the end of the financial crisis, QE clearly served its purpose in securities markets. In another respect, however, the program failed tremendously.

This current expansion is the slowest in the entire economic history of the United States. GDP growth has averaged 2.2% since the end of the financial crisis, far below the 1949-2007 long-term average of 3.25%. Wage growth is completely anaemic, with virtually no inflation-adjusted growth in the past six years. Government spending is approximately 40% of GDP and the country faces a regulatory burden of 12% of GDP. Despite all of these negative factors, both the Obama administration and Federal Reserve have attempted to convince the populace that the US economy is performing at an “optimal” level.

In recent months, however, many investors and consumers alike have started to discern the blatant attempts at misinformation. Equities markets are completely flat in 2015 so far and reports in consumer confidence are consistently falling. After the announcement that the US economy grew just 1.3% in the third quarter of 2015, the Federal Reserve itself began to shed its attitude of confidence and false optimism.

In the last FOMC meeting on 28 October, Narayana Kocherlakota, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, projected negative rates in the future. Many disregarded this as a deranged prediction from Kocherlakota, who is known for making erroneous statements on future monetary policy. On 4 November 2015, Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve, claimed that the federal funds rates could be lowered to negative territory “if outlook worsened”. The radical fringe has suddenly become the voice of prophecy.

That same day, William C. Dudley, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, stated in an interview that “some of the experiences [in Europe] suggest maybe can we use negative interest rates and the costs aren’t as great as you anticipate,” referring to the disastrous negative interest rate policy set forth by the European Central Bank. Mario Draghi, the President of the European Central Bank, hinted that rates could be lowered further if the condition of Europe’s economic condition somehow gets even worse.

The harsh truth that has emerged since the end of the financial crisis is that expansionary monetary policy does not lead to higher economic growth in the sustainable sense. Expansion of the money supply and artificially lowering interest rates only serve to create an asset bubble, which is present in the US, Canada, and Europe. Negative interest rates will only make this conundrum even more difficult to rectify after the respective bubble bursts. Instead of focusing on short-term shortcuts that lead to economic malaise in the future, the West should begin fixing its long-term problems.