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Global growth has strengthened and world trade remains robust. However, the outlook for the world economy may be affected by the risk that the US introducing import tariffs on some products will trigger larger-scale trade restrictions and by the risk that uncertainty over growth or developments in monetary policy in some advanced economies may lead to sharp corrections in the financial markets, as observed at the beginning of 2018.

Accommodative monetary conditions are still necessary in the euro area.  Growth has continued in the euro area; however, core inflation has yet to display a lasting return towards levels close to 2 per cent. The ECB Governing Council deems that an ample degree of monetary accommodation is still necessary and can be ensured through net asset purchases that will run at least until September 2018, the stock of financial assets in the portfolios of central banks and their reinvestment at maturity, and by means of forward guidance on interest rates.

Growth continues at a more moderate pace in Italy.  Based on the information available so far, our estimates indicate that GDP grew by around 0.2 per cent in the first quarter of this year in Italy, slowing down compared with the previous quarter. The decline in industrial production was accompanied by an increase in the service sector confidence indicators, despite less favourable signs for this sector too in March. Surveys of business conditions indicate that the confidence of firms and households remains at cyclically high levels, consistent with continued GDP growth; firms plan to increase their productive investment compared with 2017.

Exports strengthen.  Italian exports grew at a particularly rapid pace in the last quarter of 2017 and firms taking part in the most recent surveys pointed to a moderately favourable trend in the first three months of 2018. The strong performance of exports was reflected in a further increase in the current account surplus, which rose to 2.8 per cent of GDP in 2017, and in a considerable improvement in Italy’s net debtor position, which fell to 6.7 per cent of GDP.

The number of hours worked increases gradually.  The gradual improvement in the labour market continues, although unemployment levels remain high and wage growth is modest. The number of hours worked is increasing; the number of people in employment rose by 1.1 per cent on average in 2017, despite a slight pause in the fourth quarter; according to the most recent indications, employment returned to growth at the beginning of 2018.

Inflation remains low.  In Italy consumer price inflation remains modest, standing at 1.1 per cent in March. The slowdown in the prices of the more volatile components, in comparison with the first months of the previous year, has exerted downward pressures on twelve-month inflation. These pressures should gradually abate in the coming months. Core inflation remains low, at 0.7 per cent in March year on year and 1.4 per cent on the previous quarter on an annualized basis. The firms and households interviewed in surveys of business conditions expect a modest increase in prices in 2018.

Loans to firms increase at a sustained pace… Lending to firms shows signs of a more robust expansion. Growth stood at 2.1 per cent in the three-month period ending in February 2018 on an annual basis, and at 1.2 per cent year on year. Our surveys indicate a strengthening in the demand for bank credit, as a result of the growth in investment, while credit supply conditions remain accommodative. The increase in loans involved manufacturing and service firms.

… and non-performing loans decrease.  The quality of banking credit improved in 2017. At the end of the year the ratio of non-performing loans to total loans disbursed by significant banks fell to 14.5 per cent gross and to 7.3 per cent net of loan loss provisions, against 17.6 and 9.4 per cent respectively in 2016. Both sales of bad loans and internal recovery processes contributed to this fall.

The favourable economic developments buoy the stock market…  At the beginning of February, Italy's stock market index, like in other economies, suffered from a considerable increase in volatility in the international markets. The tensions subsequently abated and share prices increased again, reflecting above all the upward revisions of expected earnings for listed companies. Bank shares have recorded a particularly strong growth of 18.7 per cent over the last twelve months, against 13.0 per cent for the Italian stock market overall and 0.2 per cent on average for European banks.

… and narrow risk spreads.  Sovereign risk premiums remain low in Italy; they have not been affected by international tensions nor do they indicate increases in uncertainty over Italy's economic outlook. Compared with the end of 2017 the spread on ten-year bonds has fallen by 30 basis points to 129 points. The improvement in the economic outlook and the easing of tensions in the banking system have helped to mitigate the impact of the global tensions of early 2018 on Italy and to curb risk premiums. The ongoing favourable conditions require that both a credible adjustment in public finances and the reforms to increase the potential long-term growth of Italy's economy continue.

The debt-to-GDP ratio falls slightly.  The ratio of general government net borrowing to GDP decreased by around 0.2 per cent in 2017, to 2.3 per cent. A contributory factor was the further reduction in interest payments. The debt-to-GDP ratio declined slightly to 131.8 per cent.