Signs you've gone on holiday to a fascist dictatorship
And what that means for the markets in Italy and Spain.
In 1969, as a nine year-old, the only real sign that we had gone on holiday to a fascist dictatorship was the policemen with machine guns walking up and down outside the hotel. The only other real sign was that Maria, my first true holiday love and our waitress at the Riviera Hotel Benidorm, would religiously count the number of chips each of us were given. Say what you will about Spanish fascism, it had the regularity and order of a well-run capitalist fast food outlet.
Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean, in Italy, they were about to embark upon "The Years of Lead" a roughly decade-long strategy of tension that would see both left and right-wing bombing and kidnapping campaigns designed to discredit their opponents and destabilize Italy. So serious was the threat, in 1990, the government of Giulio Andreotti revealed to Parliament the existence of "Gladio", NATO’s secret network of weapons readied should there be a communist coup in Italy.
Since the installation of King Juan Carlos I in Spain in 1975 and the creation of the First Republic in Italy after the Second World War both nations have designed political systems specifically to keep the extremes out of their politics – in the case of Spain it is fascism and, in the case of Italy, communism. The transition of, in particular, Spain to an unrecognizable modern democracy within a lifetime makes it almost inconceivable that either of these countries could return to their former roots. And yet as the financial crisis intensifies, the disenfranchisement of the young through unemployment and the loss of a stake in society re-ignites the 1899 words of Gustave Le Bon in The Psychology of Socialism when he says, "As soon as he has a family, a house, and few savings, the workman becomes immediately a stubborn Conservative. The Socialist, above all, the Anarchist-Socialist, is usually a bachelor, without home, means or family; that is to say a nomad…and barbarian."
Reinforcing the disenfranchisement, the contradictions within Europe are intensifying; German house prices are continuing to rise whilst Spanish property is still falling. Some estimates suggest that prices in Spain will decline between 10 and 30 per cent in the years to come, putting increased pressure on the banking system. Another cash injection can’t be ruled out. Some twenty billion euros from the European Stability Mechanism – equivalent to one year’s profits - would do the trick. In Italy property prices have hardly started to fall – they are only some six per cent down since 2010. But that isn’t the problem.
What is more worrying for the system is that the crisis that started in the property markets is now spreading to the funding of the small and medium-sized businesses which are the life blood of these nations. Euphemistically these are called "Non-Performing Loans" but to you and me they are businesses that can’t meet their debts because the economy is still in reverse gear. Larger companies have recognized this and are cutting out the banks (who can’t lend, won’t lend) and are going straight to the bond markets for their money. For smaller companies, a self-reinforcing spiral has been put in place at an employer level. It’s also showing up in the habits of the eurozone as a whole – household borrowing has descended to a crawling pace and as we know capitalism can’t survive without a functioning credit cycle.
Problems in the banks will exclude the young from having a stake in society, as le Bon identified, which turns the financial crisis into a petri dish of social unrest. The post-war political structures of Italy and Spain were arguably put there on a "so-it-can’t-happen-again" basis. Powerful national democracies reinforced by semi-autonomous regional governments rife with self-interest and corruption makes it near-on impossible to have an electoral fascist or communist up-rising that would return them to their collective pasts. But also it creates a sclerotic system unable and unwilling to adapt and respond to crisis in a timely way. So it can’t be said that there won’t arise out of the intensification of the financial crisis a marked movement either to the left or the right in either or both of these countries borne out of a disenfranchised youth which spells trouble for their financial markets. At present both the Spanish and Italian bond markets are being held up by overt or covert market operations which is saving them from any form of real market analysis but this isn’t going to last and with it will come political change and even the end of the euro experiment.