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IT PHOTO

Italy to cut deficit from 2020, provides relief to markets

Italy will cut its budget deficit targets from 2020 and reduce its debt over the next three years, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Wednesday, easing fears about fiscal policy in the euro zone’s third-biggest economy.

The ruling coalition last week stunned investors by tripling Italy’s previous deficit target for the 2019-21 period to pay for tax cuts, welfare for the poor and a planned revision of an unpopular pension reform.

Speaking to reporters after a meeting of ministers, Conte said the government would push ahead with its expansionist fiscal programme but would keep its spending in check.

“We will show courage above all in 2019, because we believe that our country needs a budget that calls for strong growth,” said Conte, flanked by deputy prime ministers Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, and Economy Minister Giovanni Tria.

Conte confirmed a deficit target of 2.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019 and said this would fall to 2.1 percent in 2020 and 1.8 percent in 2021.

He predicted the debt/GDP ratio would fall beneath 130 percent next year and hit 126.5 percent by 2021. It is currently around 131 percent, the second highest in Europe after Greece.

The government did not release growth targets, but Tria said the gap between Italian growth and the rest of the eurozone would halve next year. The IMF has forecast growth of 1.0 percent in Italy in 2019 against 1.9 percent for the eurozone.

News the coalition planned to cut the deficit faster than previously indicated caused Italian government bond yields to fall sharply on Wednesday, while the Milan bourse outperformed other major stock exchanges in Europe to close up 0.9 percent.

Investments

The coalition came to power in June promising to slash taxes and boost welfare spending, and says an expansionary budget is needed to lift Italy’s underperforming economy, which is some six percent smaller than it was a decade ago before the sovereign debt-crisis exploded.

Tria said the 2019 budget would include a lift in public investment and would offer tax breaks to firms investing in equipment and staff. The jobless rate would fall from around 10 percent now to as low as 7 percent, the prime minister said.

European Commission officials and EU allies had expressed their concern over Rome’s spending plans and there was some relief over the reduced targets.

“It’s a good signal that the trajectory has been revised because it shows the Italian authorities are hearing the concerns and remarks from their partners and the European Commission,” EU Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said in Paris.

Italy’s minister for European affairs, Paolo Savona, went to Strasbourg on Wednesday to try to reassure EU lawmakers that Rome was not being irresponsible.

“I think there is no chance that Italy will default on its public debt,” said Savona, who has previously called into question Italy’s membership of the euro currency.

“I do not intend to take any action against the euro. On the contrary, I want to strengthen it,” he said on Wednesday.

IRAN PHOTO

Foreign firms doing business in Iran may face sanctions, US warns

President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal has left foreign firms with a choice: Stop doing business in Iran or run the risk of US sanctions.

Multinational companies have billions of dollars tied up in Iran.

In 2016, the European Union exported more than €8.2 billion ($9.7 billion) worth of goods to Iran, while importing almost €5.5 billion ($6.5 billion) from there, according to the European Commission.

But Richard Grenell, the US ambassador to Germany, warned firms that continue to do business there would face consequences.

“US sanctions will target critical sectors of Iran’s economy. German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately,” he tweeted Tuesday night.

The Federation of German Industries said any attempt to prevent firms from dealing with Iran is contrary to international law. It called on the European Union to “effectively protect European companies from the effects of illegitimate and one-sided implementation of US sanctions.”

Carl Bildt, the former leader of Sweden who is now co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, highlighted that the sanctions would have the biggest impact beyond America’s borders.

“US Iran sanctions are hardly hitting any US companies, but aim primarily at European ones,” he said in a tweet.

Under the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States committed to ease a series of sanctions on Iran and has done so under a string of “waivers” that effectively suspend them.

Virtually all multinational corporations do business or banking in the US, meaning any return to pre-pact sanctions could torpedo deals made after the 2015 agreement came into force.

“It’s a huge challenge,” said Dr. Sanam Vakil, a professor in the Middle East studies department at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy. “The US economy is 10 times that of Iran in terms of size and value, so it makes more sense to do business with the US than the Islamic Republic [of Iran].”

Among US companies, the plane-maker Boeing has signed the biggest deals, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday that its existing licenses — as well as those of its European competitor, Airbus Group — would be invalidated.

In December 2016, Airbus signed a deal with Iran’s national carrier, IranAir, to sell it 100 planes for around $19 billion at list prices. Boeing later struck its own deal with IranAir for 80 aircraft with a list price of some $17 billion, promising that deliveries would begin in 2017 and run until 2025. Boeing separately struck another 30-plane deal with Iran’s Aseman Airlines for $3 billion.

Boeing has yet to deliver any aircraft to Iran under those deals and said that it will “continue to follow the US government’s lead.”

Airbus, which is subject to the US license because it makes at least 10 percent of its aircraft components in the US, says it will abide by the new US sanctions but it could take “some time” to determine the full impact on the industry. It has already delivered two A330-200s and one A321 to Iran.

French oil company Total SA has been the most aggressive Western oil company to move back into Iran, signing a $5 billion, 20-year agreement with Iran in July. A Chinese oil company also has a deal to develop the country’s massive South Pars offshore natural gas field. Total did not respond to requests for comment.

Adam Smith, a Washington-based lawyer with Gibson Dunn and former Treasury official, agreed that if sanctions are imposed then companies will essentially be forced to choose between the US and Iranian markets.

“It’s a cost-and-benefit question for EU companies,” he said, explaining that firms would find themselves in the same situation as they were in before sanctions were lifted. “It’s a back to the future situation. It would be a world which we have been in before.”

The Treasury said there will be a “wind-down period” of 90 to 180 days to allow companies to complete transactions with Iran to avoid future US sanctions.

However, the Treasury warned that sanctions will come back into full effect after this grace period.

On Aug. 6, the US government will re-impose sanctions on activities such as the acquisition of US dollar banknotes by the Iranian government, Iran’s trade of gold and precious metals and the country’s automotive sector.

On Nov. 4, the US will re-impose sanctions on other activities including Iran’s oil and shipping industries and its energy sector, as well as on transactions by foreign financial institutions with the Central Bank of Iran.

Despite Trump’s announcement, France’s foreign minister insisted that the nuclear deal was “not dead,” adding that French President Emmanuel Macron was scheduled to speak with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani later Wednesday.

In a joint statement on Tuesday, France, Germany and the UK did not specifically address the issue of US sanctions on European companies, but said their governments remained committed to ensuring the “continuation of the economic benefits of the agreement for the benefit of the world, economy and the Iranian people.”

The UK government updated its guidelines on exporting to Iran shortly after Trump’s announcement Tuesday, saying the re-imposition of the US sanctions against Iran “may have implications for UK businesses and individuals dealing with Iran.” It advised companies to seek legal advice where necessary.

Smith said it was unclear whether Trump would actually impose sanctions on EU companies that continue to deal with Iran, adding that the threat may be strategic, and that the administration could eventually end up granting exemptions.

Vakil said it was now up to Europe to keep the deal alive and protect investment in Iran. “The ball is in the EU’s court,” she said. “I’m skeptical that companies are going to stay in Iran because the risks are so high.”