Italy upbeat after tense 2012

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ItalyMilan REUTERS File image - A demonstrator holds a placard outside Milan's Stock Exchange Palace to protest against the government's austerity plan.

Rome - Italy is ending 2012 on an upbeat note, with renewed financial market confidence and optimism among analysts that the worst of the financial crisis is over, despite expectations of political uncertainty in the run-up to a general election in February.

The Treasury's borrowing rates were slightly higher at short, medium and long-term debt auctions last week, but were well below levels seen at the end of 2011, when Prime Minister Mario Monti took over from Silvio Berlusconi as Italy teetered on the brink amid the eurozone debt crisis.

In late November 2011, the country was paying a 7.56 percent rate for its benchmark ten-year bonds, sparking widespread concerns it might have to ask for a bailout.

On Friday, that rate stood at 4.48 percent.

As 2012 draws to a close, “even if public debt has breached the two trillion euros mark, Italy's ability to finance itself is no longer in doubt,” said Enrico Marro in Italy's Il Sole 24 Ore financial daily.

“For 2013, optimism reigns,” he concluded.

The turnaround is principally the result of two factors: the European Central Bank's promise to buy sovereign debt issued by eurozone member states without limit if necessary if they meet certain strict conditions, and Monti's decisive reforms which have restored Italy's credibility internationally.

Experts have forecast a couple of months of volatility on the markets in the lead up to the February 24 and 25 elections, but the worst appears to be over.

Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo said “the fever should drop off in 2013 compared with 2012.”

The bond spread Ä a key measure of the difference between Italian and German 10-year bond yields Ä has also dropped sharply over the year, dipping below 300 basis points in early December from double that figure at its peak.

While European leaders congratulated Monti on restoring calm to the markets, Berlusconi's announcement at the start of December that he is running again for prime minister sparked panic and the spread began to inch up again.

The media magnate has dismissed the spread measure as “a trick and an invention” used to bring down his government.

Investors will be watching closely in the coming weeks to see if Berlusconi's large-scale media campaign for re-election wins him potential votes from Italians tired of Monti's austerity packages and record unemployment levels.

Renewed confidence in financial markets contrasts sharply with official forecasts for economic growth over the coming year, as Italy struggles to pull itself out of a recession.

Despite Monti's “Grow Italy” plan, the economy is not expected to return to growth before the end of 2012 or the beginning of 2014.

“Business and household sentiment does not appear to have benefited from the easing market tension,” Intensa Sanpaolo said.

The government has forecast a 0.2 percent contraction of the country's gross domestic product in 2013 Ä an outlook considered overly optimistic by Italy's business association Confindustria, which expects GDP to shrink by 1.1 percent next year.

One figure is on the rise however: the number of people on Twitter following Monti, who is drumming up support for a reform-led electoral campaign.

Monti, who resigned last week after Berlusconi's People of Freedom party pulled support from the government, has said he is keen to lead the country again after the elections - a message welcomed by the markets, European leaders and Italy's Catholic Church alike. - Sapa-AFP


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