Italy left on financial high-wire

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Rome on January 25, 2013.


  • Brilliant minds are still trying to figure out the financial impact of Italy's election

  • The lack of certainty is seen as a negative for Italy -- and the eurozone

  • Instability could reignite the eurozone crisis

  • But it depends on what deal will be done, and how the markets will respond

Editor's note: Louise Cooper is a financial blogger and commentator who regularly appears on television, radio and in print. She started her career at Goldman Sachs as a European equity institutional sales person and then become a financial and business journalist. She now writes CooperCity.

London (CNN) -- Brilliant minds across the financial world are still trying to work out the implications of the Italian election result.

For the time being, the best answer is that it is probably too soon to tell. After Tuesday's falls, a little stability has returned to markets, possibly because everyone is still trying to work out what to think.

Credit ratings agency Moody's has warned the election result is negative for Italy -- and also negative for other indebted eurozone states. It fears political uncertainty will continue and warns of a "deterioration in the country's economic prospects or difficulties in implementing reform," the agency said.

For the rest of the eurozone, the result risks "reigniting the euro debt crisis." Madrid must be looking to Italy with trepidation. If investors decide that Italy is looking risky again and back off from buying its debt, then Spain will be drawn into the firing line too.

Can the anti-Berlusconi save Italy?

Louise Cooper, of Cooper City

Louise Cooper, of Cooper City

Standard & Poor's stated that Italy's rating was not immediately affected by the election but I think the key part of that sentence is "not immediately."

At the same time Herman Van Rompuy's tweets give an indication of the view from Brussels: "We must respect the outcome of democratic elections in Italy," his feed noted.

Really? That's a first. The democratically elected Silvio Berlusconi was forced out when he failed to follow through with austerity after the European Central Bank helped Italy by buying its debt in autumn 2011.

"It is now up to Italian political leaders to assume responsibility, compromise and form a stable government," Van Rompuy tweeted.

Did he see the results? The newcomer and anti-establishment comedian Beppe Grillo refuses to do a deal and yet he is the natural kingmaker, polling at 25%.

"Nor for Italy is there a real alternative to continuing fiscal consolidations and reforms," he continued.

Economically yes, but the Italian electorate disagree. And for the time being, Italy has a democracy (of sorts).

Finally: "I am confident that Italy will remain a stable member of the eurozone."

He hopes...

The key to whether the crisis reignites is whether investors begin to back away from lending to Italy. If so, this will be the big test of the ECB's resolve to save the euro.

Read more: Euro crisis coverage

The key thing to look at is Italian bonds, because if borrowing costs rise from 4.8% for 10-year money currently to nearer 6%, then Italy will start to find it too expensive to borrow.

The trillion euro question is if the ECB will step in to help even if it cannot get the reforms and austerity it demands (because of the political situation). That is the crux of the matter. And there will be many in the city today pondering that question.

Clearly in financial markets, taking on a central bank is a dangerous thing to do. Soros may have broken the Bank of England on Black Wednesday 1992, making billions by forcing sterling out of the EMU, but that was a long time ago.

Italy avoids panic at bond auction

What we have learnt from this crisis is not to "fight the Fed" (or the ECB). Last summer, the ECB's chief Mario Draghi put a line in the sand with his "whatever it takes" (to save the euro) speech.

But as part of that commitment he stressed time and time again that any new help from the ECB comes with conditions attached. And those conditions are what have proven so unpalatable to the Italians -- austerity and reform.

So we have two implacable objects hurtling towards each other. The political mess of Italy and the electorate's dislike of austerity and reform (incumbent technocrat Mario Monti only polled 10%).

So what happens next? The status quo can continue if Italian borrowing costs do not rise from here and therefore Italy does not need ECB help.

If markets continue to believe in Draghi and Brussels that the euro is "irreversible," then investors will continue to lend to Italy. Yes, markets will be jittery and fearful, but Italy will eventually sort itself out politically.

The big advantage for Italy is although it has a lot of debt, it is not creating debt quickly (like Greece, Spain or even the UK). And as I said yesterday on my CooperCity blog, the positive outcome from all this could be that Brussels backs off from austerity, which would be a good thing.

However, the basic rule of finance is that high risk comes with high return. Soros took a huge gamble against the British central bank but it reportedly made him a billionaire overnight.

There must be a few hedge funders looking at the Italian situation with similar greed in their eyes. If he wants to save the euro, it is time for Mario Draghi to put the fear of God back into such hearts.

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White House, Republicans dig in ahead of budget talks

Speaker of the House John Boehner tells Scott Pelley in a "CBS Evening News" interview that a budget deal is now out of his hands.


  Positions hardened on Wednesday between President Barack Obama and Republican congressional leaders over the budget crisis even as they arranged to hold last-ditch talks to prevent harsh automatic spending cuts beginning this week.

Looking resigned to the $85 billion in "sequestration" cuts starting on Friday, government agencies began reducing costs and spelling out to employees how furloughs will work.

Expectations were low that a White House meeting on Friday between Obama and congressional leaders, including Republican foes, would produce any deal to avoid the cuts.

Public services across the country - from air traffic control to food safety inspections and education - might be disrupted if the cuts go ahead.

Put into law in 2011 as part of an earlier fiscal crisis, sequestration is unloved by both parties because of the economic pain it will cause, but the politicians cannot agree how to stop it.

A deal in Congress on less drastic spending cuts, perhaps with tax increases too, is needed by Friday to halt the sequestration reductions, which are split between social programs cherished by Democrats and defense spending championed by Republicans.

Obama stuck by his demand that Republicans accept tax increases in the form of eliminating tax loopholes enjoyed mostly by the wealthy as part of a balanced approach to avoiding sequestration.

"There is no alternative in the president's mind to balance," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

Obama wants to end tax breaks for oil and gas companies and the lower "carried interest" tax rate enjoyed by hedge funds.

But Republicans who reluctantly agreed to raise income tax rates on the rich to avert the "fiscal cliff" crisis in December are in no mood for that.

"One thing Americans simply will not accept is another tax increase to replace spending reductions we already agreed to," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

In one of the first concrete effects of the cuts, the administration took the unusual step of freeing several hundred detained illegal immigrants because of the cost of holding them.

Republicans described that move by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as a political stunt aimed at scaring them into agreeing to end the sequestration on Obama's terms.

The issue looked like it might become more controversial on Wednesday when The Associated Press reported that the Homeland Security Department official in charge of immigration enforcement and removal had announced his resignation on Tuesday just after news of the immigrants' releases came out.

But ICE said the report was "misleading." The official, Gary Mead, told ICE weeks ago of his retirement in April after 40 years of federal service, a spokeswoman said. Earlier, Carney denied the White House had ordered the immigrants' release.

Friday's White House meeting will include McConnell and the other key congressional leaders: Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, and House Speaker John Boehner, the top U.S. Republican.


The chances of success were not high.

One congressional Republican aide criticized the White House for calling the meeting for the day the cuts were coming into effect. "Either someone needs to buy the White House a calendar, or this is just a - belated - farce. They ought to at least pretend to try."

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Iran upbeat on nuclear talks, West still wary

ALMATY (Reuters) - Iran was upbeat on Wednesday after talks with world powers about its nuclear work ended with an agreement to meet again, but Western officials said it had yet to take concrete steps to ease their fears about its atomic ambitions.

Rapid progress was unlikely with Iran's presidential election, due in June, raising domestic political tensions, diplomats and analysts had said ahead of the February 26-27 meeting in the Kazakh city of Almaty, the first in eight months.

The United States, China, France, Russia, Britain and Germany offered modest sanctions relief in return for Iran curbing its most sensitive nuclear work but made clear that they expected no immediate breakthrough.

In an attempt to make their proposals more palatable to Iran, the six powers appeared to have softened previous demands somewhat, for example regarding their requirement that the Islamic state ship out its stockpile of higher-grade uranium.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said the powers had tried to "get closer to our viewpoint", which he said was positive.

In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commented that the talks had been "useful" and that a serious engagement by Iran could lead to a comprehensive deal in a decade-old dispute that has threatened to trigger a new Middle East war.

Iran's foreign minister said in Vienna he was "very confident" an agreement could be reached and Jalili, the chief negotiator, said he believed the Almaty meeting could be a "turning point".

However, one diplomat said Iranian officials at the negotiations appeared to be suggesting that they were opening new avenues, but it was not clear if this was really the case.

Iran expert Dina Esfandiary of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said: "Everyone is saying Iran was more positive and portrayed the talks as a win."

"I reckon the reason for that is that they are saving face internally while buying time with the West until after the elections," she said.

The two sides agreed to hold expert-level talks in Istanbul on March 18 to discuss the powers' proposals, and return to Almaty for political discussions on April 5-6, when Western diplomats made clear they wanted to see a substantive response from Iran.

"Iran knows what it needs to do, the president has made clear his determination to implement his policy that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon," Kerry said.

A senior U.S. official in Almaty said, "What we care about at the end is concrete results."


Israel, assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power, was watching the talks closely. It has strongly hinted it might attack Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail to ensure that it cannot build a nuclear weapon. Iran denies any such aim.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said economic sanctions were failing and urged the international community to threaten Iran with military action.

Western officials said the offer presented by the six powers included an easing of a ban on trade in gold and other precious metals, and a relaxation of an import embargo on Iranian petrochemical products. They gave no further details.

In exchange, a senior U.S. official said, Iran would among other things have to suspend uranium enrichment to a fissile concentration of 20 percent at its Fordow underground facility and "constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there".

The official did not describe what was being asked of Iran as a "shutdown" of the plant as Western diplomats had said in previous meetings with Iran last year.

Iran says it has a sovereign right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and wants to fuel nuclear power plants so that it can export more oil.

But 20-percent purity is far higher than that needed for nuclear power, and rings alarm bells abroad because it is only a short technical step away from weapons-grade uranium. Iran says it produces higher-grade uranium to fuel a research reactor.

Iran's growing stockpile of 20-percent-enriched uranium is already more than half-way to a "red line" that Israel has made clear it would consider sufficient for a bomb.

In Vienna on Wednesday, a senior U.N. nuclear agency official told diplomats in a closed-door briefing that Iran was technically ready to sharply increase this higher-grade enrichment, two Western diplomats said.

"Iran can triple 20 percent production in the blink of an eye," one of the diplomats said.

The U.S. official in Almaty said the powers' latest proposal would "significantly restrict the accumulation of near-20-percent enriched uranium in Iran, while enabling the Iranians to produce sufficient fuel" for their Tehran medical reactor.

This appeared to be a softening of a previous demand that Iran ship out its stockpile of higher-grade enriched uranium, which it says it needs to produce medical isotopes.

Iran has often indicated that 20-percent enrichment could be up for negotiation if it received the fuel from abroad instead.

Jalili suggested Iran could discuss the issue, although he appeared to rule out shutting down Fordow. He said the powers had not made that specific demand.

The Iranian rial, which has lost more than half its foreign exchange value in the last year as sanctions bite, rose some 2 percent on Wednesday, currency tracking websites reported.

(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl and Yeganeh Torbati in Almaty, Georgina Prodhan in Vienna, Zahra Hosseinian in Zurich, Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Marcus George in Dubai; Writing by Timothy Heritage and Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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Wall Street rebounds on Bernanke comments, data

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks rebounded from their worst decline since November on Tuesday after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke defended the Fed's bond-buying stimulus and sales of new homes hit a 4 1/2-year high.

The S&P 500 had climbed 6 percent for the year and came within reach of all-time highs before the minutes from the Fed's January meeting were released last Wednesday. Since then, the benchmark S&P 500 has fallen 1 percent.

Bernanke, in testimony on Tuesday before the Senate Banking Committee, strongly defended the Fed's bond-buying stimulus program and quieted rumblings that the central bank may pull back from its stimulative policy measures, which were sparked by the release of the Fed minutes last week.

Bernanke's comments helped ease investors' concerns about a stalemate in Italy after a general election failed to give any party a parliamentary majority, posing the threat of prolonged instability and financial crisis in Europe, and sending the S&P 500 to its worst decline since November 7 in Monday's session.

Bernanke "certainly said everything the market needed to feel in order to get comfortable again," said Peter Kenny, managing director at Knight Capital in Jersey City, New Jersey.

"The fear is we were going to see a rollover, and the first shot over the bow was what we saw out of Italy yesterday with the elections," Kenny said. "When it came to U.S. markets, we saw some of that bleeding stop because our focus shifted from the Italian political circus to Ben Bernanke."

Gains in homebuilders and other consumer stocks, following strong economic data, lifted the S&P 500, and a 5.7 percent jump in Home Depot to $67.56 boosted the Dow industrials. The PHLX housing sector index <.hgx> rose 3.2 percent.

Economic reports that showed strength in housing and consumer confidence also supported stocks. U.S. home prices rose more than expected in December, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller index. Consumer confidence rebounded in February, jumping more than expected, and new-home sales rose to their highest in 4-1/2 years in January.

However, the central bank chairman also urged lawmakers to avoid sharp spending cuts set to go into effect on Friday, which he warned could combine with earlier tax increases to create a "significant headwind" for the economic recovery.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> gained 115.96 points, or 0.84 percent, to 13,900.13 at the close. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> rose 9.09 points, or 0.61 percent, to 1,496.94. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> advanced 13.40 points, or 0.43 percent, to close at 3,129.65.

Despite the bounce, the S&P 500 was unable to move back above 1,500, a closely watched level that was technical support until recently, but could now serve as a resistance point.

The CBOE Volatility Index <.vix> or the VIX, a barometer of investor anxiety, dropped 11.2 percent, a day after surging 34 percent, its biggest percentage jump since August 18, 2011.

The uncertainty caused by the Italian elections continued to weigh on stocks in Europe. The FTSEurofirst-300 index of top European shares <.fteu3> closed down 1.4 percent. The benchmark Italian index <.ftmib> tumbled 4.9 percent.

Home Depot gave the biggest boost to the Dow and provided one of the biggest lifts to the S&P 500 after the world's largest home improvement chain reported adjusted earnings and sales that beat expectations.

Macy's shares gained 2.8 percent to $39.59 after the department-store chain stated it expects full-year earnings to be above analysts' forecasts because of strong holiday sales.

Volume was active with about 7.08 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, NYSE MKT and Nasdaq, above the daily average of 6.48 billion.

Advancing stocks outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a ratio of about 2 to 1, while on the Nasdaq, three stocks rose for every two that fell.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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Benedict: Pope aware of his flaws?

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his last Angelus Blessing to thousands of pilgrims gathered in Saint Peter's Square on February 24.


  • Sister Mary Ann Walsh: Pope Benedict acknowledged that he made mistakes

  • Walsh: In firestorm over scholarly quotes about Islam, he went to great lengths to atone

  • Walsh: Similarly, he quickly reversed a decision that had angered Jews and repaired ties

  • Even his stepping down is a nod to his humanity and his love of the church, she says

Editor's note: Sister Mary Ann Walsh is director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Northeast Regional Community. She is a former foreign correspondent at Catholic News Service (CNS) in Rome and the editor of "John Paul II: A Light for the World," "Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on his Papacy," and "From Pope John Paul II to Benedict XVI."

(CNN) -- One of the Bible's paradoxical statements comes from St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians: "Power is made perfect in infirmity."

The poetic statement proclaims that when we are weak, we are strong. Pope Benedict XVI's stepping down from what many consider one of the most powerful positions in the world proves it. In a position associated with infallibility -- though that refers to formal proclamations on faith and morals -- the pope declares his weakness.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh

Sister Mary Ann Walsh

His acceptance of frailty speaks realistically about humanity: We grow old, weaken, and eventually die. A job, even one guided by the Holy Spirit, as we Roman Catholics believe, can become too much for us.

Acceptance of human frailty has marked this papacy. We all make mistakes, but the pope makes them on a huge stage.

He was barely into his papacy, for example, when he visited Regensburg, Germany, where he once taught theology. Like many a professor, he offered a provocative statement to get the conversation going. To introduce the theme of his lecture, the pope quoted from an account of a dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an unnamed Muslim scholar, sometime near the end of the 14th century -- a quote that was misinterpreted by some as a condemnation of Mohammed and Islam.

Opinion: 'Gay lobby' behind pope's resignation? Not likely

Twice, the pope emphasized that he was quoting someone else's words. Unfortunately, the statement about Islam was taken as insult, not a discussion opener, and sparked rage throughout the Muslim world.

The startled pope had to explain himself. He apologized and traveled two months later to Istanbul's Blue Mosque, where he stood shoeless in prayer beside the Grand Mufti of Istanbul. Later he hosted Muslim leaders at the Vatican at the start of a Catholic-Muslim forum for dialogue. It was a human moment -- a mistake, an apology and atonement -- all round.

A similar controversy erupted when he tried to bring the schismatic Society of St. Pius X back into the Roman Catholic fold.

In a grand gesture toward reconciliation, he lifted the excommunication of four of its bishops, unaware that one, Richard Williamson, was a Holocaust denier. This outraged many Jews. Subsequently the Vatican said the bishop had not been vetted, and in a bow to modernity said officials at least should have looked him up on the Internet.

In humble response, Benedict reiterated his condemnation of anti-Semitism and told Williamson that he must recant his Holocaust views to be fully reinstated. Again, his admission of a mistake and an effort to mend fences.

News: Scandal threatens to overshadow pope's final days

Pope Benedict XVI came from a Catholic Bavarian town. Childhood family jaunts included trips to the shrine of the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Altotting. He entered the seminary at the age of 13. He became a priest, scholar and theologian. He lived his life in service to the church. Even in resigning from the papacy, he embraces the monastic life to pray for a church he has ever loved.

With hindsight, his visit to the tomb of 13th century Pope Celestine V, a Benedictine monk who resigned from the papacy eight centuries before, becomes poignant.

In 2009, on a visit to Aquila, Italy, Benedict left at Celestine's tomb the pallium, a stole-like vestment that signifies episcopal authority, that Benedict had worn for his installation as pope. The gesture takes on more meaning as the monkish Benedict steps down.

We expect the pope to be perfect. Catholics hold him to be the vicar of Christ on earth. He stands as a spiritual leader for much of the world. Statesmen visit him from around the globe. He lives among splendid architecture, in the shadow of the domed St. Peter's Basilica. All testify to an almost surreal omnipotence.

Complete coverage of the pope's resignation

In this world, however, walked a vulnerable, human person. And in a paradox of life, his most human moment -- giving up the power of office -- may prove to be his most potent, delivering a message that, as St. Paul noted many centuries ago, "Power is made perfect in infirmity."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mary Ann Walsh.

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Kelly out to early lead in race to replace Jackson in Congress

Former state Rep. Robin Kelly is out to a big lead in tonight's special primary election to replace disgraced former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in Congress.

With 55 percent of precincts reporting, Kelly had 57 percent to 19 percent for former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson and 11 percent for 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale.

The total number of votes isn’t expected to be large, however, as a storm that brought a wintry mix of snow and slush depressed turnout in the 2nd Congressional District contest.

Chicago election officials reported that as of 1:45 p.m., turnout was about 11 percent among sampled city precincts. The figures included ballots cast today and early and absentee voting.

"This puts us on course for turnout in the mid-teens," said Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, in an e-mail. "This is to be expected with a special primary and special election. It is shaping up to be among the lowest turnouts in recent decades."

There are primaries for both political parties in the South Side and south suburban district, but the territory is so heavily Democratic that whoever emerges from the crowded Democratic field is expected to easily win the April 9 special general election.

Today's voting follows weeks of candidate forums, an accelerated campaign schedule and a flurry of TV ads from the mayor of New York. While the top-tier candidates among the 14 Democrats vying for the primary nomination are known, there also are some big unknowns. Voter turnout, already anticipated to be very low, could be exacerbated by nasty weather.

The results of early voting held between Feb. 11 and Saturday demonstrated a lack of interest in the contest, despite its ramifications in deciding who will represent voters and their disparate interests in the vast district.

A majority of the district's Democratic voters live in suburban Cook County, with an additional one-third from the South Side. The district also includes parts of eastern Will County and all of Kankakee County, and together the two regions make up slightly less than 10 percent of the Democratic vote.

In suburban Cook, 4,459 early votes were cast, with 98 percent of those voters taking Democratic ballots. Of the 11 suburban early voting locations, Matteson Village Hall, in Kelly's hometown, had the most with 1,601 voters.

In Chicago, 98 percent of the 2,768 early voters cast Democratic ballots. Only 63 early votes were cast for Republicans.

In Will, 246 voters cast early ballots, all but 40 of them Democratic votes. Kankakee County officials reported 699 early ballots, with 533 voting Democrat and 166 Republican.

"I just think if it was a regular race, then they'd look a little bit different," Kelly said of the low early voting totals. "I also think because (the special primary) came so close to the November election that there's some (voter) fatigue."

But in a large field of candidates and questionable turnout, a nomination for Congress could be decided by mere hundreds of votes. Even as forecasters sounded warnings of a Tuesday smorgasbord of wintry weather, candidates sought to energize core supporters to help get out the vote.

In an email to supporters, Kelly's campaign pleaded for volunteers to help get voters to the polls and asked for money for its get-out-the-vote field operation.

Halvorson acknowledged the early voting numbers were "paltry" and that voter turnout would be a "huge" factor Tuesday. Halvorson said she believed turnout could be driven by the district's history of scandals — including last week's guilty plea by Jackson on federal charges of illegally converting about $750,000 in campaign cash to personal use.

"I think this race has gotten so much attention and people are so angry about what the 2nd Congressional District has had to deal with over the years that they're going to take a special interest to make sure they are going to vote for someone who is completely different than what they've seen," said Halvorson, of Crete.

Halvorson also has been the target of the most extensive advertising in the contest, more than $2.2 million worth of TV and mail attacks by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's super political action committee, centered on her past National Rifle Association support. Bloomberg's Independence USA PAC is backing Kelly.

Beale said the low number of early ballots puts all the more importance on Election Day field efforts. He said that well-established organizations in the six city wards in the district could serve as an advantage for his campaign.

"It's just slow across the board, and that just goes to show it is going to be a very low turnout," Beale said of the early votes. "We're just making sure we're targeting our core, solid voters, and we're going to get them out to the polls and be victorious Tuesday night."

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Italy parties seek way out of election stalemate

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's stunned political parties searched for a way forward on Tuesday after an inconclusive election gave none of them a parliamentary majority and threatened prolonged instability and a renewal of the European financial crisis.

The results, notably the dramatic surge of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo, left the center-left bloc with a majority in the lower house but without the numbers to control the upper chamber, the Senate.

Financial markets fell sharply at the prospect of a stalemate that reawakened memories of the crisis that pushed Italy's borrowing costs toward unsustainably high levels and brought the euro zone to the brink of collapse in 2011.

"The winner is: Ingovernability," ran the headline in Rome newspaper Il Messaggero, reflecting the deadlock the country will have to confront in the next few weeks as sworn enemies are forced to work together to form a government.

Ratings agency Standard & Poor's said on Tuesday that policy choices of the next Italian government would be crucial for the country's creditworthiness, underlining the need for a coalition that can agree on new reforms.

Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the center-left Democratic Party (PD), has the difficult task of trying to agree a "grand coalition" with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the man he blames for ruining Italy, or striking a deal with Grillo, a completely unknown quantity in conventional politics.

The alternative is new elections either immediately or within a few months, although both Berlusconi and Bersani have indicated that they want to avoid a return to the polls if possible: "Italy cannot be ungoverned and we have to reflect," Berlusconi said in an interview on his own television station.

For his part, Grillo, whose movement won the most votes of any single party, has indicated that he believes the next government will last no more than six months.

"They won't be able to govern," he told reporters on Tuesday. "Whether I'm there or not, they won't be able govern."

He said he would work with anyone who supported his policy proposals, which range from anti-corruption measures to green-tinted energy measures but rejected suggestions of entering a formal coalition: "It's not time to talk of alliances... the system has already fallen," he said.

The election, a massive rejection of the austerity policies applied by Prime Minister Mario Monti with the backing of international leaders from U.S. President Barack Obama to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, caused consternation across Europe.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble put a brave face on it, saying "that's democracy".

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo was more pessimistic.

"This is a jump to nowhere that does not bode well either for Italy or Europe," he said.

A long recession and growing disillusionment with mainstream parties and tax-raising austerity fed a bitter public mood and contributed to the massive rejection of Monti, whose centrist coalition was relegated to the sidelines.

Projections by the Italian center for Electoral Studies showed that the center-left will have 121 seats in the Senate, against 117 for the center-right alliance of Berlusconi's PDL and the regionalist Northern League. Grillo would take 54.

That leaves no party with the majority in a chamber which a government must control to pass legislation.


On a visit to Germany, President Giorgio Napolitano said he would not comment until the parties had consulted with each other and Bersani called on Berlusconi and Grillo to "assume their responsibilities" to ensure Italy could have a government.

He warned that the election showed austerity policies alone were no answer to the economic crisis and said the result carried implications beyond Italy.

"The bell is ringing for Europe as well," he said in his first public comments since the election.

He said he would present a limited number of reform proposals to parliament, focusing on jobs, institutional reform and European policy.

However forming an alliance may be long and difficult and could test the sometimes fragile internal unity of the mainstream parties.

"The idea of a majority without Grillo is unthinkable. I don't know if anyone in the PD is considering it but I'm against it," said Matteo Orfini, a member of Bersani's PD secretariat.

"The idea of a PD-PDL government, even if it's backed by Monti, doesn't make any sense," he said.

For his part, Berlusconi won a boost when his Northern League ally Roberto Maroni won the election to become regional president of Lombardy, Italy's economic heartland and one of the richest and most productive areas of Europe.

For Italian business, with an illustrious history of export success, the election result brought dismay that there would be no quick change to what they see as a regulatory sclerosis that has kept the economy virtually stagnant for a decade.

"This is probably the worst possible scenario," said Francesco Divella, whose family began selling pasta under its eponymous brand in 1890 in the southern region of Puglia.

Berlusconi's campaign, mixing sweeping tax cut pledges with relentless attacks on Monti and Merkel, echoed many of the themes pushed by Grillo and underlined the increasingly angry mood of the Italian electorate.

But even if the next government turns away from the tax hikes and spending cuts brought in by Monti, it will struggle to revive an economy that has scarcely grown in two decades.

Monti was widely credited with tightening Italy's public finances and restoring its international credibility after the scandal-plagued Berlusconi, who is currently on trial for having sex with an under-age prostitute.

However, Monti struggled to pass the kind of structural reforms needed to improve competitiveness and lay the foundations for a return to economic growth. A weak center-left government may not find it any easier.

The view from some voters, weary of the mainstream parties, was unrepentant: "It's good," said Roger Manica, 28, a security guard in Rome, who voted for the center-left PD.

"Next time I'll vote 5-Star. I like that they are changing things, even if it means uncertainty. Uncertainty doesn't matter to me, for me what's important is a good person who gets things done," he said. "Look how well they've done."

(Additional reporting by Barry Moody, Gavin Jones, Lisa Jucca, Steven Jewkes, Steve Scherer, Catherine Hornby and Massimiliano Di Giorgio, Annika Breidthardt in Berlin. Writing by Philip Pullella and James Mackenzie; Editing by Peter Graff)

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Wall Street trips and falls on cloudy Italian election

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks on Monday suffered their biggest drop since November after a strong showing in Italian elections by groups opposed to the country's economic reforms triggered worry that Europe's debt problems could once again destabilize the global economy.

The decline marks the biggest percentage drop for the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 Index since November7, and drove the S&P down to its lowest close since January 18. The CBOE Volatility Index <.vix> or VIX, Wall Street's favorite barometer of fear, surged 34 percent, its biggest jump since August 18, 2011.

Selling accelerated late in the trading session after the S&P 500 fell below the 1,500 level, which has acted as a significant support point. Monday marked the S&P's first close under 1,500 since February 4.

Italy's center-left coalition holds a slim lead over former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right bloc in the election for the lower house of parliament, three TV projections indicated. But any government must also command a majority in the Senate, a race that is decided by region.

The resulting gridlock in parliament could lead to new elections and cast into doubt Italy's ability to pay down its debt.

"Europe hasn't gone away as an issue, it is going to hang around, and it is rearing its ugly head today," said Stephen Massocca, managing director of Wedbush Morgan in San Francisco.

"If someone gets elected who is simply not going to play by the rules, what are they going to do? It puts them in a real quandary here because their financial support, their monetary support is all stipulated by the fact that these austerity programs are going to be in place."

Earlier polls pointing to a center-left victory boosted stocks in Milan and other European markets, and also helped lift the S&P 500 to a session high of 1,525.84 on optimism that Italy would continue down its austerity path.

After a strong start to the year, equities have retreated more recently. The S&P 500's slight fall last week was its first weekly drop after a seven-week string of gains.

In Monday's volatile session, banks and other financial stocks were among the worst performers on worries about the sector's exposure to Italy's massive debt. The KBW Bank Index <.bkx> fell 2.7 percent.

The CBOE Volatility Index <.vix> ended at 18.99, up 34.02 percent.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> dropped 216.40 points, or 1.55 percent, to 13,784.17 at the close. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> lost 27.75 points, or 1.83 percent, to 1,487.85. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> fell 45.57 points, or 1.44 percent, to 3,116.25.

Although the overall market lost ground on Monday, there were a few bright spots.

Barnes & Noble Inc shares shot up 11.5 percent to $15.06 after the bookseller's chairman offered to buy its declining retail business.

Amgen Inc shares climbed 3.1 percent to $89.55, after rival Affymax issued a voluntary recall of its only drug, an anemia treatment that competes with Amgen's top-selling red blood cell booster, Epogen. Affymax shares lost 85.4 percent to $2.42.

The FTSEurofirst-300 index of top European shares <.fteu3> edged up 0.04 percent and Italy's main FTSE MIB <.ftmib> ended up 0.7 percent after earlier gaining nearly 4 percent.

Political uncertainty on the home front, though, is also on Wall Street's mind.

U.S. equities will face a test with the looming debate over so-called sequestration - U.S. government budget cuts that will take effect starting on Friday if lawmakers fail to reach an agreement over spending and taxes. The White House issued warnings about the harm the cuts are likely to inflict on the economy if enacted.

"Sitting out there is the one-thousand-pound gorilla - the sequester issue - and certainly nothing is happening there," said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer of Solaris Group in Bedford Hills, New York.

Lowe's Companies Inc lost 4.8 percent to $35.86 after the home improvement retailer posted fourth-quarter earnings.

With 83 percent of the S&P 500 companies having reported results so far, 69 percent beat profit expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 6 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

Volume was active with about 7.27 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, NYSE MKT and Nasdaq, above the daily average of 6.46 billion.

Declining stocks outnumbered advancing ones on both the NYSE and the Nasdaq by a ratio of about 4 to 1.

(Editing by Kenneth Barry, Nick Zieminski and Jan Paschal)

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Chicago could see 6 inches of snow in Tuesday storm

Abundant sunshine and temperatures close to 50 degrees in the past few days teased sober Midwestern sensibilities.

Encouraged perhaps by spring training photos, some people deliberately ventured outside. Some even hopped on bicycles for spins. Maybe they dared to think that spring could break a little early this year.

But on Tuesday morning, for the second time in less than a week, a blustery mix of freezing rain, sleet and snow is forecast to hit the Chicago area. Accumulations could reach 6 inches.

Sure, weather predictions being what they are around here, many will shrug off the warnings and be brazenly optimistic. But it might be best to recall the adage that those who ignore history are sure to be victimized by it.

Chicago has plenty of late-season snow history and, regardless of what materializes, the prudent will keep their salt dry, snow shovels handy and snowblowers primed for the next couple of months.

National Weather Service records from 2011 show that 54 of the previous 139 years — nearly 40 percent — experienced at least one day with an inch or more of snowfall on or after March 25. A total of 17 of those years brought multiple days with more than an inch of snow to Chicago.

One year, 1926, included six days when more than an inch of snow fell after March 25.

And, like some cruel trick, the later in the season the snow falls, the heavier and deadlier it tends to be. On the other hand, it also generally melts faster.

Among the grimmest of those late snowfalls was the deadly storm of April 15-17,1961, when a rainy low-pressure system stalled and kept looping over the Chicago region. It transformed cold rain into nearly 7 inches of snow. Six people died from the storm's effects; four were victims of snow-shoveling heart attacks.

That storm remains the latest major snowfall of 6 inches or more in the Chicago area.

More recently, the area was hit with nearly 2 inches of snow on March 27, 2008. On March 29, 2009, 1.2 inches accumulated. A week later, more than 2 inches of snow fell.

Tuesday's forecast, which calls for heavier snow north of Interstate 80 and winds whipping up to 35 mph, weighed on Jason Marker's mind while he stood at the Downers Grove Metra station Monday.

"I have a job interview tomorrow," said Marker, 30, of Downers Grove. "It's going to be tough getting there because I have to ride my bike."

Still, he said the winter has been a moderate one so far, "but maybe it will catch up with us tomorrow."

Ashley Feuillan and Bernard Thomas, also of Downers Grove, will be commuting in opposite directions Tuesday morning. Thomas commutes to a job in Aurora, which he starts at 7 a.m. Feuillan hops the train to Columbia College Chicago three times a week.

Both said they plan to leave earlier Tuesday.

"I actually like the snow," said Feuillan, 24, "but it can be a hassle when you're trying to get someplace."

Rather than focusing on what could be a nasty storm, Thomas, 40, kept an upbeat perspective.

"It hasn't been a bad winter," he said. "We haven't really had any big snowstorms."

If the forecast is accurate, Jake Weimer could receive a little relief.

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Asian shares edge higher, yen falls on BOJ report

TOKYO (Reuters) - Asian shares edged higher on Monday, with investors still picking up shares battered by last week's steep plunge, while the yen fell to fresh lows on news a reflationary advocate could head the Bank of Japan next month.

The news Japan's government is likely to nominate Asian Development Bank President Haruhiko Kuroda, an advocate of aggressive monetary easing, as its next central bank governor, is set to be a major factor in financial markets this week.

Markets are pondering whether Italy's weekend elections will produce a stable government, and the implications of that for euro zone cohesion, while Moody's credit downgrade on Britain will play on confidence in the pound and government bonds.

Investors also await testimony on Tuesday from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke for further clues of when the Fed may slow or stop buying bonds. Financial markets were rattled last week after minutes of the Fed's January meeting suggested some Fed officials were mulling scaling back its strong monetary stimulus earlier than expected.

The MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.miapj0000pus> was up 0.1 percent, pulled higher by Australian shares <.axjo> which gained 0.6 percent on reassuring comments from U.S. Federal Reserve officials on the bank's current stimulus program, which has helped underpin risk sentiment globally.

South Korean shares <.ks11> opened up 0.2 percent, with the nation's new leader, who has shown willingness to talk down the won, being sworn in on Monday.

Tokyo's Nikkei stock average <.n225> opened 1.6 percent higher. <.t/>

Early on Monday, the yen touched its lowest since May 2010 of 94.61 yen against the dollar, while the euro rose to a high of 124.83 yen, still off its 34-month peak of 127.71 set early this month.

The Nikkei newspaper reported the Japanese government is likely to nominate Haruhiko Kuroda and Kikuo Iwata, both vocal advocates of aggressive monetary expansion, as BOJ governor and deputy governor.

The dollar fell sharply to below 93 yen last week on media reports that Toshiro Muto, a former financial bureaucrat perceived as less willing to take unconventional steps, was the frontrunner candidate for the top BOJ job.

"The dollar's move this morning is merely a rebound from disappointment on Muto last week. I don't think this topic will be enough to hoist the dollar above 95 yen," said Hiroshi Maeba, head of FX trading Japan at UBS in Tokyo. "No matter who is elected at the BOJ, it will not affect the longer-term trend of a weak yen," he said.

Speculation over the BOJ has been a key factor driving the yen lower recently due to anticipation for strong reflationary measures, but other fundamental factors such as Japan's deteriorating trade balances and signs of firmer U.S. growth also supported a weakening yen trend.

Abe told Americans on Friday "I am back and so is Japan" and vowed to get the world's third biggest economy growing again.

Investors remained cautious before the full official results of Italy's elections come out on Tuesday, worried a potential political stalemate could impede Rome's progress on fiscal reforms.

The euro was up 0.1 percent to $1.3192, off Friday's six-week low of $1.31445.

Sterling fell to a 31-month low of $1.5073 early on Monday and a record low against the New Zealand dollar at NZ$1.8025 following Friday's one-notch downgrade of Britain's prized triple-A sovereign rating by Moody's.

Investors will also seek signs of recovery from the flash estimate of China's manufacturing PMI from HSBC/Markit due later in the session.

Wall Street ended higher on Friday, boosted strong earnings from Dow component Hewlett-Packard , but the benchmark Standard & Poor's Index <.spx> posted its first weekly decline of the year. European shares rose on Friday after data showed German business morale surged at its fastest pace in over two years in February.

Hedge funds and other big speculators cut their bullish bets on U.S. commodities by nearly $13 billion, the most in about 10 months, in the week to February 19 to $69 billion, just before oil and metals prices tumbled last week on rumors a commodities fund was dumping positions, trade data showed on Friday.

U.S. crude was up 0.1 percent to $93.26 a barrel.

(Editing by Eric Meijer)

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