Where next for Italian corporate bond issuers after a stellar 2017?
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Where next for Italian corporate bond issuers after a stellar 2017?

What is the outlook for 2018 for Italy’s corporate borrowers, after a year in which old and new names came to the bond markets with great success? Some of Italy’s most important treasury teams met GlobalCapital to discuss the prospects for the year ahead. Funding teams and investment bankers shared their views on the state of the local and international economies, how they are finding access to capital markets and what the future holds as the ECB tapers its corporate sector purchase programme and investors adjust to a new era of normalisation.

Participants in the roundtable were:

Stefano Pierini, head of finance, Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane

Gianluigi Basile, formerly treasurer, Telecom Italia Finance

Valerio Bellamoli, corporate head of finance, Saipem

Gianmarco Viglizzo, managing director, debt capital markets, Crédit Agricole

Carolina Marazzini, head of debt origination Italy, UniCredit

Giulio Baratta, head of IG finance and IG bonds, BNP Paribas

Fabrizio Viola, third party structure at Generali Investments Europe

Nigel Owen, moderator, GlobalCapital

: What was the reason behind the raft of new Italian corporate issuers coming to the bond market in 2017?


Giulio Baratta, BNP Paribas: 2017 was a great year for volume and performance, characterised by the access Italian corporates had to different markets, different currencies and different tenors within them. The increase in issuance on the year before was substantial — up more than 50% compared to 2016. 

The reasons behind this increase were market conditions overall and the ability of Italian corporates to anticipate funding needs where possible. The liability management activity was clear evidence of Italian corporates trying to lock in favourable funding levels.

Obviously QE has played a part, but general credit spread performance has helped borrowers from peripheral countries with good ratings. Previously, Italian corporates paid for volatility, but they enjoyed good access in size and maturity in 2017. They had access to long term maturities as much as any other European corporates.

Carolina Marazzini, UniCredit: Cost is the main reason. The ECB, in lowering the yields of investment grade bonds, has created the conditions for new issuers (mainly sub-investment grade) to come to the market to fill the pockets of demand with a minimum return required that was not possible to achieve with existing investment grade issuers.

Gianmarco Viglizzo, Crédit Agricole: There were various reasons. A number of corporate restructuring related transactions — Italgas spinning off from Snam, Saipem from Eni. There was a little M&A financing, like Esselunga. And then we saw companies like Leonardo, formerly Finmeccanica, and Ferrovie dello Stato come back to the market.

We saw green bonds being quite active in Italy in 2017 after Enel’s transaction in January which we led. We saw a bunch of smaller companies who issued private placements for the first time, such as Erg. Everyone benefitted from the low cost of money — that is quite evident.

Quite a few issuers took advantage of very strong market conditions to extend duration, to diversify sources of funding and to prefund some redemptions. Liability management exercises have been widely used to optimise redemptions, which also helped to optimise balance sheets. Most Italian corporates today feature smooth maturity profiles as a result.

Fabrizio Viola, Generali: In general, the European corporate market performed very well in 2017, driven by high beta credits and sub debt, but ECB corporate purchases have helped corporate bonds, as has the restoration of the banking systems. 

With regard to Italy in particular, the new legislation for PIR products — piano individuale di risparmio, or individual savings plans in English — which are totally tax free for investors, has created a natural demand for Italy-based companies and Italy-based debt and equity. Many Italian issuers have taken the benefits of this to issue for the first time or to re-issue, and many have done so also with the opportunity to fund themselves at very low interest rates — well below the norm.

Gianluigi Basile, TIF: In my view, the liquidity in the market has given us more of a window to issue. Of course, all the market performed well in 2017 and it didn’t just help Telecom Italia and Italian corporates but all European corporates as demand grew.

I expect the demand for investment grade bonds will remain stable in 2018. We have a split rating, but the outlook is good for us too. The performance Telecom Italia had in 2017 was super good.

Valerio Bellamoli, Saipem: In 2017 QE and the search for yield were certainly very important factors, if not the most important factors. When you add the expectations of low inflation and a general improvement in economic conditions, this all led to an improvement in perception of the risk of issuers.

Because of this, in 2017 we anticipated some of the financing we would otherwise have done in 2018 and I would imagine other companies did similar for the same reason.

The marker of the success, from our point of view, was the tenor that it was possible to achieve and the spreads we could price at. We are relatively new to the market, with our debut in September 2016. We issued in 2017 in April and at the end of October. We achieved better terms each time, while observing a tightening of spreads over each previous issuance. The recovery of the price of oil also helped, as our investors tend to associate higher oil prices with lower credit risk.

Stefano Pierini, Ferrovie dello Stato: The new companies that were born last year like Italgas also helped. The market has been looking to businesses that have a blend of monopolistic content — Terna, for example, and some of the other utilities. When markets understand a business and how the business is critical to its clients, it is well received.

During 2016, our CEO was working on the brand new business plan which was presented in August 2016. So in 2017 we explained how our new business was shaping and evolving. This is why we got a very good reception from the market. Our first green bond is the only green bond where the funding of rolling stock was addressed. Otherwise train companies have always used them for infrastructure.

: Does it feel like investors, international and domestic, are more comfortable with your credit than they ever have been?

Bellamoli, Saipem: Our impression is that investors have become increasingly comfortable with our credit. This is also confirmed by the level of new issue premiums we have been paying. We provided alternatives to typical Italian issuers, but we only have a very small portion of our revenues generated in Italy. We are a global company and selling a lot into dollar markets. But a significant amount of our costs are Italian so we are Italian!

Pierini, Ferrovie dello Stato: We are a sweet blend of being 51% owned by the government and we are an essential business. We own the infrastructure and we run the greatest rail fleet, so we are perceived as an essential company and we have seen order books three times oversubscribed in June and more than two times for the last transaction.

Foreign investors want to know how you are running the business. The UK is looking to Italy with a need to understand the business. But, if I look at France or the Netherlands — one wonderful discovery of recent transactions — when we explain how green we are we got a wonderful reaction. Some 10% of our green bonds went into the Netherlands.

Basile, TIF: I don’t think Italy is an issue for international investors. Conditions have improved, GDP and economic data are good and will continue to increase in the future. When you look at the spread Italian companies offer versus other similar companies, the premium is quite good for investors and they had good performance from Italian corporates in 2017.

Marazzini, UniCredit: Investors were worried about Europe and the euro. They were so worried by the fact that any possibility of going back to local currency would have penalized Italy massively because of the large government debt. Since it became clear to everybody that the euro is here to stay, the perceived credit risk of Italian corporates has diminished substantially.

Viglizzo, Crédit Agricole: I would say that rather than new investors we are back to seeing all of the old ones again. On average the UK is buying a little less, but France and Germany are buying a bit more. Overall, investors are comfortable with Italian credits.

Viola, Generali: There are many comments out there saying how the systemic risk has been significantly reduced in the European landscape. We should also add that in Italy the banking system is experiencing a quite successful balance sheet reparation, with many non-performing loan clean-ups.

There are also many blocks of NPL sales in the pipeline, and this should provide more buffers for bond investors.

This will help banks offer opportunities for Italian corporates, particularly SMEs, to borrow at historically low yields.

: Are you worried that this recent support for Italian corporate bonds may not continue once CSPP ends in September and will this affect the timing of your deals in 2018?

Viglizzo, Crédit Agricole: The ECB has gone to great lengths to say tapering would be gradual, so I expect no shocks. I would say there is strong support for Italian names currently, irrespective of CSPP. 

We have certainly seen a lot of prefunding, so how much more is their left to do? But we are also seeing the first green shoots of recovery on the domestic macro front which should bring new investment and fuel bond issuance.

2017 was the strongest year of the last three. I don’t know if 2018 will be as strong in terms of volume, but conditions remain excellent, and I expect a contribution from M&A activity, which seems set to pick up.

Pierini, Ferrovie dello Stato: 2018 should not be a year when we expect to have a lot of funding to do. But anyway, we are not worried about the ECB. I think we must see QE as an experience that is limited in time. If it were to go on and on then something must be tragically wrong.

Basile, TIF: The ECB announcement it will end QE in 2018, maybe 2019, of course will have an impact on bonds and markets and bonds have performed better over the life of QE. But when the ECB decides to stop QE it will be because the economy is performing well. So I think it will have an impact from a rates point of view, but, in terms of demand, the reaction will be balanced.

I don’t think rates will increase quickly as inflation is still low. Maybe the ECB will end QE because there are no more bonds to buy! And they could implement QE again if they needed to ease conditions at a later date.

Bellamoli, Saipem: It appears that QE will be very gradually unwound. We don’t expect dramatic changes in 2018.

The economic growth that seems to be sustainable globally will help offset any effects of unwinding so we don’t expect much overall effect.

Viola, Generali: I agree that the ECB withdrawal for QE will be quite smooth and slow — minimising the market impact of this. It will be government bonds first, then corporate bonds, but the effect will be mostly in the second half of 2018 and possibly more in 2019. 

The market, particularly on the corporate bond side, is well prepared. There is still a natural demand for credit and this will counteract the effect of the withdrawal of QE going forward.

Baratta, BNP Paribas: With regard to timing I see no reason to wait. Everyone expects CSPP to come to an end in 2018. Rates expectations are for an increase in the US and that can influence the rates dynamic in Europe. We expect Italian corporates to keep accessing market before the summer break.

The market has opened strongly in January. The tone is strong, unchanged from last year, and funding levels are still very attractive.

Marazzini, UniCredit: I agree. We believe corporates will try to anticipate the future tapering by taking advantage of the current favourable conditions as much as possible.

Corporates with diversified operations will continue to issue below government levels after the end of QE. It will be more difficult for purely domestic corporates and will also depend on where their international peers will trade.

:  How have Italian corporate balance sheets been improved over the last number of years?

Bellamoli, Saipem: The perception is that balance sheets have improved for many important Italian companies because they have been doing well and reinvesting rather than distributing dividends. 

In our case we completed a capital increase for €3.25bn in 2016. Many companies managed to extend the average life of their debt by increasing the proportion of capital markets issuance and reducing their reliance on bank finance. That has allowed them to extend maturities as much as possible.

Pierini, Ferrovie dello Stato: Italian corporates have put in a wonderful amount of internal work to improve their financial statements. As Valerio mentioned, there has also been a significant convergence towards funding many activities in the capital markets. These help to make these corporates stronger from a financial perspective. Security has grown and S&P notching up the rating of the republic has also helped. We expect a further tightening of spreads.

Baratta, BNP Paribas: I agree with that comment on ratings. Deleveraging has been testified by the ratings uplifts we have seen. Several sub-investment grade issuers have been upgraded to investment grade — Telecom Italia and Leonardo, for example. Lots of issuance has been combined with liability management exercises and capital structures are now more balanced.

Thanks to the issuance of Italian corporates over the last year or so, capital structures have become more solid, balanced and flexible. Italian corporates have accessed the capital markets a lot in recent months, and not just in euros. There has been an increase in dollar supply from Italian corporates as well. Managing investor diversification beyond a heavy reliance on the euro bond market will be seen by investors as another strength of Italian issuers.

Viola, Generali: Italian corporate balance sheets are now largely in line with their sector averages across Europe. This has created the opportunity for these companies to fund themselves at lower overall interest rates and allow them the possibility to prefund maturities coming due well ahead of time. This has provided buffers of cash and this safety is allowing them to counteract some negative cyclical effects.

There are no signs that any of the non-financial sectors are in difficulty and all are in line with their European peers with regard to revenue growth and profitability.

Marazzini, UniCredit: Italian SMEs have also improved their balance sheets in recent years and investors are recognising that. The number of SMEs that fall into this category is increasing, resulting in more firms that are eligible for alternative forms of financing.

:  Does the political situation in Italy worry you with regard to international investor involvement in your borrowing?

Bellamoli, Saipem: The election is likely to increase the volatility in sovereign spreads and for corporate bonds as we approach the date. However, this might be relatively temporary because, unless we get a surprise result and one of the parties emerges as a clear winner and is able to dictate its own conditions, we will probably have no clear winners and no dramatic changes in the economic policy of the government.

Pierini, Ferrovie dello Stato: We have to deal with this every two or three years! Those corporates who are stronger and perceived as long term companions of financial markets were in the market in 2002 and 2010, etc, but what might happen to some of the newer issuers may depend on the result.

Viola, Generali: The market is not expecting an adverse result in terms of a new government being anti the EU or the euro. The most likely scenario seems to be a continuation of the current situation with no party receiving a majority in either the senate or parliament. This will leave financial markets very benign and there will be no sell-off of Italian bonds.

When we start looking at the exit polls we will start to see some volatility in markets for sure, but I don’t expect it to last long. Beyond the election, the most likely impact is on BTPs. With a positive outcome I think it is almost certain that the spread between BTPs and Italian corporate bonds will narrow as government bonds start to perform again. 

Basile, TIF: From a political point of view we had a stable year last year. Of course the election is this year but I don’t think it will be an event for the market. It is likely that everything will remain stable with no one party winning and the reaction of markets is likely to be minimal.

Italy overall performed well in the last year. Investment is increasing. Employment is still an issue for the Italian economy and of course there are lots of things to do still, but economic conditions are improving and I think we have a good path to better conditions with a stable government. The momentum is good and it is a good time to push that all European economies are trying to get better.

Also the government has helped Italian corporates attract funding. It depends on the company but some have benefitted from laws that have been implemented to accelerate investment. 

Viglizzo, Crédit Agricole: We have had a raft of elections across Europe, and exceptional political events globally, and none of them have managed to derail the market. Of course the election is important, but there is a consensus that the sort of scenarios that could cause market disruption are unlikely — wanting to leave EU and the euro, etc. The most likely scenario is a coalition.

The most important political safety net is provided by the ECB. There will be some volatility around the election, but the market won’t really be closed. Maybe a few basis points of widening, but I don’t see the market being disrupted.

Where a future government could help is with SMEs. Different tools can be put in place by the government, such as tax credits and the treatment of non-performing loans, and we have to reduce the complexity of doing business. Currently there is too bureaucratic a framework to allow this dynamic for smaller companies. A future government could take a decision to support mid-caps. Tax benefits for mergers and acquisitions and consolidation to achieve sizeable dimension, for example.

Baratta, BNP Paribas: It is still early, but from speaking to investors, people are not worried about the outcome at moment. Once the election is over, positive macro trending will play a big role in continuing the positive momentum we have been seeing. From an international perspective, what investors want to see is the Italian state balance sheet under control and that a bit of growth is there. They are asking for generic economic and political stability.

Marazzini, UniCredit: The election will increase volatility only if there will be a clear victory of one of the populist parties. In other cases, including a tie, the markets will be barely touched.

When the result is settled, the new government needs to continue with the specific measures it has been promoting to opening the capital markets to more companies. For instance, there have been initiatives to promote bond issuances by taking out tax and legal obstacles for unlisted firms that want to access the market.

: While on the subject of politics, what effect might Brexit have on your business and your plans for growth?

Pierini, Ferrovie dello Stato: We entered the UK market in February 2017 — we now own C2C [an English train operating company that operates the Essex Thameside railway franchise]. Some asked why. It is undeniable that the UK is an interesting market. There may be fewer commuters after Brexit but I think the UK has experienced so many things in its history, and I think there might be further opportunities to come.

Peers of ours like Deutsche Bahn are looking to the UK market, and competition is not coming from private companies because the UK market is so capital intensive. You need to have a good financial profile. 

On a separate note I think Brexit has made the remaining EU countries a little bit closer.

Basile, TIF: I don’t think we would see an impact, even in the worst case scenario. We have some positions in sterling but they are fully hedged as per our policy to hedge all FX exposures. I don’t believe there will be an impact on Telecom Italia’s business.

Bellamoli, Saipem: We don’t think that Brexit will affect us significantly either.

Viglizzo, Crédit Agricole: Brexit is not high on the agenda of any of the corporates we talk to. One corporate has expressed doubt about how long sterling investors will continue to be active but nobody is worried about it from a business perspective.

Viola, Generali: We also don’t see it being applicable in Italy at all. 

: How have you seen the dynamics of the loan market versus the bond market develop in recent times?

Baratta, BNP Paribas: The spread compression in bond markets has served to increase bond issuance, while companies have looked to extend revolving credit facilities to lock in existing funding levels. 

In 2016 I think the bond market was impacted by the TLTRO loan facility, but in 2017 the tightening saw loan financing decrease and things evened out.

Viglizzo, Crédit Agricole: Bank loans will possibly become less attractive now TLTRO has ended.

Bellamoli, Saipem: As I mentioned earlier, tenor is what brought about the increase in capital market funding in 2017.

For large corporates like us that are investment grade or are cross-over credits, the terms that we can achieve in the bank market are very good but the maturities are shorter than what we can achieve from capital markets, with the possible exception of export finance.

In our case, we are keeping a significant proportion of our funding, around €500m, through export finance facilities which provide longer tenors. These are typically 8.5 years amortising with a weighted average life of around five years.

Basile, TIF: In short term maturities there is no arbitrage between loans and bonds because we can have liquidity in both. But Telecom Italia has a big portion of debt — around €25bn net debt — that we have to refinance. So, of course, we will use all the markets we have to hand to optimise our debt profile.

Pierini, Ferrovie dello Stato: Loans are not really an option in our business, given the duration we aim to achieve. They are maybe complementary for purchase financing but it is clear if you look at the numbers: in 2013 we had zero bonds; now, more than 40% of our debt is in bonds.

Marazzini, UniCredit: UniCredit is committed to being a key player not only in traditional lending, which remains our core business, but also by responding to the changing market place by matching the financial resources of the capital markets with the financial needs of our clients. 

Clients can choose to issue bonds instead of taking out loans so they have enhanced visibility, others may prefer IPOs given current positive market conditions, while some are able to grow through M&A. Most transactions take some time before concluding, but UniCredit is committed to partnering and supporting clients over this regardless of the changing market conditions.

Viola, Generali: The PIR provided an opportunity for companies to issue in the bond market but the restoration of the balance sheets of Italian banks will free up space for the loan market to continue to offer cheap funding, despite the end of TLTRO.

But I think there will be opportunities in both the loan and bond markets for borrowers to fund cheaply and to support the restoration of the recovery of the Italian corporate market.

: Has your banking group evolved at all in recent years? What is your domestic/international mix?

Basile, TIF: We are one of the big Italian companies so we have worked with all the premier international banks.

But in the last few years all the Italian banks had an incentive to lend money to big Italian corporates, and so we saw an increase of this type of loan. But I haven’t seen much change beyond that.

Bellamoli, Saipem: In our case it is a little special. Saipem was part of the Eni group until the end of 2015 so our direct relationship with the banking market is very recent.

We started a direct relationship with the bank market when we syndicated a €4.7bn bank facility at the end of 2015 with large participation from European banks. This has now been entirely repaid in full, except for the €1.5bn revolving credit facility.

We aim to utilise the banks in future more for trade finance facilities such as bid bonds, advance payment bonds and performance bonds, and less for funding.

Pierini, Ferrovie dello Stato: We too have been growing. In 2003 we had almost no banks and now we have a large amount of banks. I agree with Valerio — you have to look at the banks for the services they can provide. 

It does not mean some of those we had originally are no longer with us, but if you want funding you have to have the right banks to allow you to achieve your plans.

Viglizzo, Crédit Agricole: At the margin we have seen some Asian banks becoming more active and more vocal in getting mandates linked to their lending activity. We also see that happening with Italian regional banks.

American banks are slowly but surely getting back the market share they had lost after the crisis.

Baratta, BNP Paribas: It is fair to say large international banks by and large remained in Italian corporates’ banking groups. The trend has been selective in terms of maybe the more international banks weighting more on large versus small or medium, in line with the historical behaviour of larger international players. But this has created opportunities for local lenders.

In the last quarter of 2017 there were a few refinancings from big borrowers looking to extend revolving credit facilities. There were no big banks missing from those. Maybe some international banks reduced their appetite at the margins due to some name-specific challenges, but nothing that affected the end result for the borrowers.

Clearly the domestic players have tried to increase as much as possible their inclusion in loans to Italian corporates. The borrowers would not have perceived difficulties from international players — more the need to allocate a lot to local players.

This has created pricing tensions leading to spread reduction, and on DCM transactions becoming more crowded.

: So what are your funding plans and objectives for 2018?

Pierini, Ferrovie dello Stato: In 2017 we raised €1.6bn and this won’t be the case in 2018! We are making calculations now and we might have a benchmark close to the summer but it depends. We have a good generation of cashflows, but we are now entering into a reshaping of our freight business. This means we will be buying locomotives so that might be part of our plans for 2018. In the coming months we will make a clear assessment of that.

Basile, TIF: We are also waiting. We usually issue in January but we didn’t come to the market as we are waiting for new plan from our CEO. He will be launching his new plan in February. We issued more than €1bn in October, so it was enough for now and we are waiting for the new plan to assess our funding for the future.

Bellamoli, Saipem: We also don’t plan to issue as much in 2018 as in 2017 because we anticipated last year what we would have done this year and took advantage of the very good conditions.

We will remain opportunistic for not particularly big amounts because we have literally no debt maturing in 2018. Even for 2019 and 2020 the amount of debt maturing is very manageable. 

One objective remains to extend the average life. So that may result in some new capital markets exercises if we have the opportunity to issue longer maturities, but we have little debt maturing so have no need to access capital markets for refinancing purposes.

Viola, Generali: As mentioned here, many corporates have prefunded in 2017, but there is a natural demand for newcomers who could come to the market.

Pirelli, an unrated issuer, was massively oversubscribed in January, and the bond was priced well inside initial spread guidance. 

Last year there was almost €60bn of total issuance from Italian corporates and around €55bn of that was in clips of more than €300m of net issuance, so benchmark size. It was a lot, but we expect something similar in 2018. We are planning for €50bn-€60bn of gross issuance again this year.

We could see more green bond issuance too in 2018. This is a largely undiscovered area for Italian investors and that could be increased going forward. SRI and ESG dynamics are always very popular in other jurisdictions across Europe, and Italian investors could become interested in these types of investments too. Particularly pension funds and endowments, who are obliged to provide something different to their investor base.

: With strong conditions and a reduced need for funding, what might keep you awake at night worrying in the year ahead?

Bellamoli, Saipem: The overall picture is very positive. I hope it remains as it is today. Right now we have only positive expectations. The global economy is doing well. The price of oil is doing well. The price of shares is generally doing well, but another risk might come from a sudden reversal.

But there are widespread forecasts of economic growth with low inflation, so the best of all worlds.

If there are risks they are maybe of a geopolitical nature, but the economy seems to be very resilient to them and therefore in general we are very positive about the year ahead.

Basile, TIF: Political change in Italy and the rest of the world is still the biggest issue for us in the next year, but hopefully it is still a relatively small risk. The end of QE will be an issue but again it is unlikely to be a big issue.

We had a good year in 2017. We performed super well. We are implementing a lot of changes as a business — technology, demand for data is increasing — so we have a lot of challenges to face, but I think it will be a good opportunity to implement new technology. At some stage we will have to finance life on 5G, but that is for the future.

We have to wait for the new plan to understand what we will do this year and in future, and to understand if Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s will upgrade us to investment grade, but I hope so obviously.

Even if they don’t, I am sure we will still have a great year.

Viola, Generali: Inflation is the name of the game this year. Inflation spikes or uncontrolled inflation could derail the base picture because rates will adjust accordingly — possibly quite sharply — and this will provide negative total returns for bond investors, forcing some redemptions and losses.

Supply and demand dynamics will be the key. If they stay under control thanks to the efforts of central banks to control inflation and allow smooth growth, then I think we could see a copy and paste of 2017. If inflation is not controlled then the market could suffer.

We have a natural bias for the short to medium area of the curve and believe there are relatively good returns to be had in that part of the curve.

Pierini, Ferrovie dello Stato: We have no specific issues because of the framework we built for the ratings agencies.

Lots of banks will give us committed lines and that makes everyday business a little bit less scary!

What is important in 2018 is that the markets should look at Italy as a reliable place to invest. You have to attract international investors for eight to 10 years, so they need to perceive Italian corporates as reliable. 

Corporates are closely analysed by investors, so we need to keep explaining the growth and future plans of the company. We have a continuous and ongoing conversation with investors via our investor relations department.

Viglizzo, Crédit Agricole: Nothing related to the market keeps me awake for 2018. Save for the black swan type of event, I think in 2018 investors will have a perception of central bank support still being there. The political election does not keep me awake at night.

I hope the recovery in the economy will not be derailed by either macro or political forces, but I don’t have any real worries about either.

Baratta, BNP Paribas: Things are quite positive because of the macro environment and the trust and appetite of investors. European credit markets will continue to be supported by CSPP for several months.   

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