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Will Italy Leave the Euro? Follow the Money

Mark Whitehouse writes editorials on global economics and finance for Bloomberg View. He covered economics for the Wall Street Journal and served as deputy bureau chief in London. He was previously the founding managing editor of Vedomosti, a Russian-language business daily.
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Will Italy follow the U.K.'s example and leave the European Union? Far-fetched as it may seem, capital flows suggest that some people aren’t waiting to find out.

To keep the euro area's accounts in balance, Europe's central banks track flows of money among the members of the currency union. If, for example, a depositor moves 100 euros from Italy to Germany, the Bank of Italy records a liability to the Eurosystem and the Bundesbank records a credit. If a central bank starts building up liabilities rapidly, that tends to be a sign of capital flight.

Lately, Italy's central bank has been building up a lot of liabilities to the Eurosystem. As of the end of September, they stood at about 354 billion euros, up 118 billion from a year earlier -- and up 78 billion since the end of May, before the U.K. voted to leave the EU. The outflow isn't quite as large as during the sovereign-debt crisis of 2012, but it's still significant. The main beneficiary seems to be Germany, which has seen its credits to the Eurosystem increase by 160 billion over the past year. Here's a chart showing the cumulative six-month flows between Italy and Germany and the rest of the euro area:

Voting With Their Money
Six-month change in central bank balance with the Eurosystem, billions
 
Source: Bloomberg

Why the accelerating outflows from Italy? One explanation is that people are worried about the state of the country's banks, which are suffering the consequences of bad lending, poor governance and a new euro-area oversight system that makes rescues difficult. Another is political: Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has staked his fate on a December government-reform referendum that, if it goes against him, could strengthen opponents who want to force a vote on whether Italy should remain in the common currency, a key element of the broader union. In that context, it's not surprising that some depositors prefer not to hold Italian euros, given the chance that they might eventually be converted into lira.

Either way, the capital flight doesn’t speak well of confidence in the European project -- something EU leaders will have to keep in mind as they negotiate the terms of Britain's exit.

(Corrects headline and fourth paragraph to reflect goal of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's opponents. They want a vote on whether Italy will stay in the euro, not the EU.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net