Italy's political turmoil rocks global stock markets

MILAN – The latest specter to roil Wall Street is coming from Italy, where the prospects of a financial crisis came back to haunt the country on Tuesday. That's leading its markets -- and those around the world -- to plunge on fears that the eurozone's third-largest economy is heading toward another election that could shape up to be a referendum on whether to stay in the common currency.

Shares were lower across markets Europe and Asia on Tuesday as investor confidence was undermined by the political uncertainty in Italy. And U.S. markets were poised to reopen lower after the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Futures on the Dow Jones industrials index were off around 170 points, or 0.7 percent, on Tuesday morning. S&P 500 and Nasdaq futures were down by 0.6 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively.

Italian premier-designate Carlo Cottarelli, a former International Monetary Fund official, was expected to submit his list of ministers to President Sergio Mattarella in Rome, two days after an attempt by two populist parties to form a government foundered when the president rejected their anti-euro economy minister.

Enraged at losing their chance at governing following inconclusive elections in March, both the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the anti-euro League vowed with other parties to vote against a Cottarelli government when it faces a vote of confidence in parliament, expected later this week. That would force Italy to new elections in the fall, with Cottarelli heading an interim, caretaker government.

With the populist parties emboldened by the president's dismissal of their government in favor of an unelected group of technocrats, some experts fear the stakes have been raised for the next vote.

"Italy will be wrapped in a long drawn-out period of wrangling that will feature intense anti-establishment and euroskeptic tones," said political analyst Wolfango Piccoli. He said that while it was doubtful that the 5-Stars and League would "embrace a clear euro-exit platform," they can be expected to be more hostile toward the EU.

The Milan stock index was down nearly 3 percent, weighing particularly hard on banks, and Italian bonds suffered a plunge reminiscent of the worst days of the financial crisis of 2011. The government's borrowing rate for two-year money more than doubled, by over 1.5 percentage points to 2.4 percent, indicating a surge in investor concern. The 10-year yield rose above 3 percent, according to FactSet.

"We should now call this a crisis," said Kit Juckes, an analyst at Societe Generale.

Ratings agency Moody's warned that it would cut Italy's rating -- now just two notches above junk level -- if the next government doesn't present a budget that puts Italy on a trajectory to reduce its debt, now at 132 percent of GDP, the second highest rate in the eurozone after Greece.

If Cottarelli doesn't pass a vote of confidence, as is nearly certain, his government wouldn't get a chance to set out such a budget.

In an annual speech on the state of the Italian economy, Bank of Italy governor Ignazio Visco tried to sound a warning against the tide of populism, saying that "Italy's destiny is that of Europe."

"We are part of a very large and deeply integrated economic area, whose development determines that of Italy and at the same time depends on it," he said. "It is important Italy has an authoritative voice in forums where the future of the European Union is decided," Visco said, referring to upcoming EU decisions regarding the governance of the bloc, multi-year budgets and the revision of financial rules.

Visco warned that investors would flee the system if they see their wealth eroded because of an economic crisis, noting that "foreign investors will follow suit even more quickly. The financial crisis that would ensue would put us back significantly. It would taint Italy's reputation forever."

Addressing populists who have raised fears that outside forces are calling the shots in Italy, he said, "we are not constrained by European rules, but by economic logic."