October 12, 2018 / 1:28 PM / 3 days ago

Crunch time for Italy, Brexit as leaders convene in Brussels

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Brussels, the political heart of Europe, could prove the center of global market focus next week as Italy’s budget and Brexit talks overshadow economic data and central banks.

The Italian national flag flutters atop of the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome June 26, 2013. REUTERS/Max Rossi

World shares were on course for their worst week since February as a spike in U.S. bond yields, a U.S.-China trade war and other global risks have combined to undermine sentiment.

One such risk is an impending dispute between Italy’s eurosceptic government and the European Union over Rome’s 2019 budget plans, which could lead the EU executive to the unprecedented move of rejecting it.

Euro zone countries, including Italy, have until Monday to submit their draft budgetary plans to the European Commission, winch which would have to warn Rome within a week if it planned to trigger the rejection process.

The populist Italian government plans a deficit of 2.4 percent of GDP next year, triple the previous administration’s target, prompting investors to sell Italian bonds and pushing the country’s borrowing costs to five-year high at a bond auction.

EU leaders meeting in Brussels from Wednesday to Friday are expected to spend time discussing Italy, even if it is not formally on the agenda of an exceptional three days of talks that will also see them meeting around 25 Asian leaders, including the prime ministers of China and Japan.

The European Commission headquarters is seen in Brussels, Belgium, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

That agenda does include efforts to finalize a withdrawal deal with Britain.

Finding a way of ensuring an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland post-Brexit has been the main challenge, but the indications in the past two weeks are that both sides are inching towards a deal, boosting the pound.

“Now comes the crunch time,” said economists at Commerzbank, adding that there was the risk of a sharp correction if negotiations drag on beyond the coming week.

James Knightley, chief international economist at ING, said Italy’s budget and Brexit would be in sharp focus in the week ahead, along with the course of markets themselves.

“Are we going to get any calm returning to equity markets? There’s a lot of unsettling concern about the combination of higher bond yields, geopolitical risk and the ongoing trade tensions,” he said.

FED ON TRACK DESPITE TRUMP INVECTIVE

In terms of data, September retail sales from the United States are expected to reflect the strength of the world’s largest economy with an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent, a 49-year low, and wages picking up.

FILE PHOTO - Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker attend the European Union leaders informal summit in Salzburg, Austria, September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

The sales figures on Monday are seen up 0.5 percent in after a mere 0.1 percent increase in August, the smallest rise in six months.

Such data should confirm the Federal Reserve in its rate-cutting path, even if U.S. President Donald Trump has called it crazy. The Fed increased interest rates for a third time this year at the end of September and is expected to do so again.

“That’s going to be keeping the Fed on a rates-hiking and tightening path, even though there is some concern in financial markets right now,” said Knightley.

The week is set to round off with figures on Chinese economic growth on Friday. The average forecast for expansion in the third quarter is 6.6 percent, a shade lower than the 6.7 percent growth in the April-June period.

Anything lower than that could indicate that the trade war with Washington, as well as a slowing property market, could be dragging down the world’s second-largest economy.

Trade figures from China on Friday showed China’s trade surplus with the United States hit a record high in September.

The data showed solid expansion in China’s overall imports and exports, suggesting little damage from the tit-for-tat tariffs with the United States, though that could provoke a reaction from Trump.

Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Toby Chopra

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