Italy’s “war” with international debt markets has sent borrowing costs soaring for its traditionally prudently managed private companies, stifling their efforts to invest in competing more strongly with rivals in Germany and beyond.
Just as Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti tries to fix the problems that have hindered Italy’s private sector for decades, notably its legendary official red tape, companies are paying significantly more to borrow than competitors to the north.
The European Central Bank (ECB) has slashed its interest rates and showered banks with cheap cash in the hope they will lend to companies and consumers in the struggling southern nations such as Italy, which have been worst hit by the eurozone crisis.
Yet at the same time, a jump in Italy’s borrowing costs on the sovereign bond market has dragged up interest rates on bank loans to Italian industry.
“We used to be able to borrow at 2.5 percent to 3 percent. But since this war of the sovereign bond spreads began, things have changed dramatically,” Marly’s chairman Paolo Bastianello said. “The cost of credit has certainly risen by a couple of percentage points.”
Marly’s is the kind of Italian manufacturer that typically competes strongly on international markets, making high-end women’s clothes under its own label and for top fashion brands such as Carlo Pignatelli and Kathleen Madden.
A company with annual sales of 16.5 million euros (US$20.5 million), Marly’s is based near the historic city of Vicenza in Veneto, a region thick with small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) which have long exported goods and components to the huge German market across the Alps.
Even though the ECB’s benchmark rate has fallen to a record low of 0.75 percent, the cost of corporate credit in Italy now reflects more the general risk associated with the state and the cost of sustaining its mammoth 2 trillion euro debt.
Italy’s conservative companies, which have avoided taking on the huge debt burdens typical in the Anglo-Saxon world and fellow eurozone struggler Spain, are paying the price for a state debt equal to 120 percent of annual economic output.
At 81 percent of GDP, total net indebtedness of Italian non-financial the UK, France and Spain, although slightly higher than in Germany, according to Bank of Italy data.
However, Italian firms rely on banks for 70 percent of their financial debt, a higher share than the European average. This makes them dependent on banks’ lending policies and vulnerable to domestic economic developments.
ECB data released on Wednesday showed that companies in Italy paid on average a 4.57 percent interest rate in June for short-term loans of up to 1 million euros. This compares with just 3.37 percent paid by their German competitors and is half a percentage point higher than the eurozone average.
Yet 18 months ago, before being engulfed in the eurozone crisis, Italian companies could get small short-term loans at 3.22 percent, below the euro average and Germany, ECB data show.
Companies from the largest corporations to the smallest family businesses have now fallen foul of the rule that private borrowers must be a greater credit risk than the governments of the country where they are based.
Italian firms, like many around Europe, have long found it hard to match their German competitors’ high productivity. However, if they borrow now to fund productivity improvements, their disadvantage simply grows.