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Italian markets nervous as unions strike over cuts

December 12, 2011

ROME (AP) — Italian financial market jitters worsened on Monday, as workers angry about government austerity reforms went on strike and held nationwide rallies while investors turned skeptical about an EU pact to save the euro.

Some Fiat’s auto plants were idled and a performance at La Scala opera house in Milan was canceled as unions kicked off the first of days of walkouts and demonstrations against the spending cuts and tax increases the government is seeking to restore investor confidence in the country’s financial future.

That confidence was eroding on Monday, with Milan’s stock index down 2 percent and the benchmark 10-year bond yield rising 0.52 of a percentage point to 6.76 percent.

Italy did manage to raise €7 billion ($9.4 billion) in a bond auction, though the relatively strong demand was boosted by a bank association promotion waiving fees to buy the bonds.

Investors remain worried about the future of both Italy and the wider 17-nation eurozone despite an EU deal last week to tighten controls on spending. While that deal will boost longer-term budget discipline, it does little to lower current debt and exposed deepening political division.

Britain’s decision to not sign on to the deal agreed in principle by the other 26 EU members also laid bare political rifts. It could prove costly to the other members because of Britain’s insistence that certain EU institutions cannot be used to enforce their new budget rules, Unicredit analyst Erik Nielsen said.

The Italian government’s efforts aimed at stabilizing Italy’s finances to boost growth and lower debt, which stands at 120 percent of GDP, were coming under fire from unions.

Workers joined rallies and a nationwide strike in several labor sectors to protest pension reforms. It was the first in a series of walkouts called over the emergency austerity measures which Premier Mario Monti insists are vital to avert financial disaster.

Metalworkers, including on assembly lines at Fiat’s auto factories, were staging an eight-hour strike, while others were planning to walk off the job three hours before the end of the shift.

Also on strike were workers at La Scala, the Milan opera house that was forced to cancel a concert, and typographers at Italian newspapers and web sites.

Public transport union leaders called walkouts for Thursday and Friday. Other public sector employees were set to walk off the job on Dec. 19, while bank workers have a strike called for Friday.

The union leaders say the government’s austerity measures hit too hard at pensioners and workers and not hard enough at the wealthy. A rally was called for Monday afternoon outside Parliament, which is expected to pass the measures by Christmas.

“Fairness, fairness,” shouted workers marching in Florence.

In Genoa, hundreds of workers, joined by students protesting school budget cuts, were marching toward a rally site. Fiat workers joined hundreds of other blue-collar workers, students and youths in a march in Turin, hometown to the automaker, which is the country’s largest private sector employer.

Monday’s rallies were peaceful, but the sacrifices being demanded of Italians, including higher taxes and less generous pension terms, have seen tensions ratchet up in the country.

Authorities in Rome post offices intercepted two envelopes containing bullets and apparently intended for Rome’s mayor and the country’s justice minister.

Mayor Gianni Alemanno said one envelope was addressed to his personal secretary and appeared to be aimed at “taking advantage of this tense moment.” Inside was a written claim by an extreme left-wing group named after a slain Red Brigades terrorist, the mayor told Sky TV by telephone.

He and other officials said the second envelope containing bullets was addressed to the justice minister, Paola Severino.

Roman authorities were on the lookout for suspicious mail after a letter bomb exploded last week at the office of a tax collection agency, wounding an official. That attack was claimed by an Italian anarchist group, the same one that sent a similar — but intercepted — letter earlier in the week to Deutsche Bank in Germany.

One of the union leaders who called for Monday’s strikes expressed dismay over the bullet mail. But Raffaele Bonanni, head of the centrist CISL confederation, added that the “harsh measures” in Monti’s anti-crisis package risked “splintering social coehesion.” That, in turn, can lead to “provocateurs taking advantage” of the tensions, he told Sky ahead of a rally outside Parliament.

Monti’s government of fellow non-elected technocrats, which took office last month, is urging Parliament to swiftly pass his rescue plan, which includes investing about a third of the €30 billion ($40 billion) in austerity savings in infrastructure and other projects to try to revive economic growth.

Labor Minister Elsa Fornero, who was among government officials meeting with union leaders on Sunday night, has said some pension reforms might be softened, but that overall spending cuts must remain for the country to regain credibility on financial markets.

“We’re working to make the (emergency) package fairer,” said a centrist party leader, Lorenzo Cesa. Lawmakers were considering raising the minimum level of pensions that would be eligible for periodic increases tied to inflation, he told Sky TG24 in an interview. Monti’s measure freezes such raises for all but the very lowest pensions.

Efforts were also under way to soften the blow of the revival of a property tax that Monti’s predecessor, media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, had abolished. Lawmakers were considering making homeowners with large families pay less tax, Cesa said.

Italy is under pressure to cut its €1.9 trillion ($2.5 trillion) public debt amid worries that persistently high borrowing costs will make it unable to turn over the debt with new bonds.

A new simulation by the Bank for International Settlements, however, offered some consolation, saying Italy could sustain higher borrowing rates for a long period.

“Given the relatively high average residual maturity of the Italian public debt (seven years), it would take a long time for elevated yields to translate into significant additional debt service costs,” the Basel, Switzerland bank said in a study released Monday.

Elevated yields seen in recent weeks for all of 2012 would cost Italy less than 1 percentage point of GDP, or about €16 billion. “Even the worst scenario shown here would have to persist for three years until yearly additional costs exceeded 2 percent of GDP,” the bank said.

On Monday, Italy’s sale of 12-month bonds attracted demand covering the amount on offer by 1.92 times. The government paid an interest rate of 5.92 percent, down from a record of 6.087 percent hit last month, when concerns about the country’s future were at a high.

The sale was held on the second “bond day” sponsored by the Italian Banks Association, which allowed private buyers to snap up public debt without the usual commission.

“This is a particular period where Italian citizens may show their commitment to the country by investing in the Italian government bonds,” said Davide Sabatini, a spokesman for the bank association. “This initiative aims at a beneficial effect on the Italian crisis especially now when the spread between Italian government bond and other European government bonds are quite high.”


Barry contributed from Milan.

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