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Stewart Cowley: whose clever little boy are you?

by Stewart Cowley on Jan 23, 2013 at 07:00

Stewart Cowley: whose clever little boy are you?

I worked in a pub in the North East of England in the 1970s.

One day at 11.30am, as I was clearing glasses away from a table, I noticed that the four people nursing their second pint of the day were struggling with the Sun crossword. 'Big furry thing, lives in Africa, eats antelopes and goes RRRRRRrr!!! Four letters, begins with L ends in N,' they mused aloud, over and over again. The tension was palpable and although it wasn’t my place I couldn’t but help say, 'Lion…?'

As one, eight eyes swivelled towards me and with a look of awe that has never been reproduced ever in my life again, one of them exclaimed, 'And whose clever little boy are YOU!!!!!' The lesson that I was taught at that instant was that saying the absolutely obvious can, sometimes, come as a shock.

Italian bond mystery

And with that, I turn my attention to Italy.

I have to confess the Italian bond market has been a mystery for about six months now. Since the high point in yields in last year of some 6.5% down to today’s 4.25%.

Non-annualised returns have been some 16% for ten-year maturity bonds over that time period so it has been a significant opportunity lost.

True, the backstop created by the European Central Bank in September should have given us a clue that things were OK but even that safety net was so full of caveats that it has, in all reality, the value of an HMV gift voucher.

Anyway, the rally had started long before that.  Clearly, something has been going on behind the scenes that wasn’t obvious to daily observers.

We can now say what that was; banks awash with cash started buying Italian government bonds again. It seems like an obvious thing and we had some inkling of it but the sheer scale of it and its sustainability is what concerns us.

On an annualised basis, Italian banks are buying or recycling some €100 billion a year back into the Italian bond market. ‘Other’ big countries in Europe, like Germany, France, Spain etc..., are collectively doing the same. In other words, Italy has been relying on the kindness of strangers as much as it does on the benevolence of its own citizens to fund its debt issuance program. Any slip in that process and yields should start to rise again.

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