My point of view about Italy and Euro. Un mio pezzo su Italia ed Euro sul blog della London School of Economics. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2014/06/03/italys-economic-problems-are-not-caused-by-the-euro-but-by-the-countrys-chaotic-political-system/
Despite some signs of economic recovery in the Eurozone, the Italian economy has continued to struggle. Salvatore Perri assesses
the argument that Italy’s economic problems are largely a result of its
membership of the euro. He argues that most of the problems identified
with Italy’s use of the single currency would likely be exacerbated with
an independent currency and that the real issues facing Italy are a
consequence of the decisions made by Italian politicians.
In Italy, the debate about the euro is becoming increasingly complex.
Many analysts, politicians, and also some economists have openly
suggested that exit from the euro could be a good solution for the
Italian economy. Nevertheless, there are some aspects which are not
given sufficient attention in this analysis. What would the impact of
leaving the euro actually be on the Italian economy?
The most important argument which has been made against the euro in
Italy is that the productivity of Italian workers has declined since
monetary union. This may well be true, but it is difficult to assert
that the euro was the biggest cause of this development. In all
developed countries, the so called ‘financialisation’ of the economy has
generated a reduction in the weight of work for modern societies due to
the financial sector absorbing a greater chunk of a nation’s financial
Historically, Italy was a country which was capable of transforming
raw materials into products which could be sold to other countries.
Independently of which currency is used, globalisation has reduced the
opportunity for Italian goods to be successful in world markets as
developing countries have gained a larger stake in exporting goods to
areas such as Europe.
Competition over goods will always be determined by two factors: cost
and quality. Italian goods are now in a situation where they will only
be in an advantageous position if they are of greater quality than
alternatives, with a high level of technological skill in terms of
production. Reducing wages is therefore not the solution to making
Italian goods competitive again and the productivity of workers is not
the problem facing Italian industries.
Leaving this issue to one side, let’s imagine that Italy did leave
the euro and opted to take a ‘new lira’ as its legal currency. Under
this scenario what would happen to wages? The new lira would be weaker
than the euro and, as such, Italian firms which export goods would be at
an advantage. Unfortunately, however, Italy is not blessed with oil or
other raw materials and would therefore have to pay a premium to produce
these goods, which could also potentially lead to high levels of
Far from obtaining an advantage by leaving the euro, this course of
action would probably achieve the opposite of what is intended. Workers
would have to pay higher prices to sustain themselves and, as a
consequence, would demand higher wages. Firms, in turn, would have to
increase prices further to compensate for the higher staff costs,
potentially leading to requests for government support to help
The result would likely be similar to the situation in the late
1970s, with high inflation and high levels of social instability. Under
these conditions Italian exporters would certainly not be in a position
to compete more effectively in world markets. Moreover, it should also
be remembered that in southern Italy criminal organisations remain
strong: if inflation is growing and the state becomes weak, the main
beneficiaries may end up being Italian Mafias.
The real problem with Italy’s use of the euro
Clearly, the euro has more than one problem, but these issues have
been presented incorrectly in the Italian debate. In reality the
solution is not ‘less Europe’, but more Europe. Monetary policy has
become integrated, but local governments still compete over fiscal
policy. The result is that countries across the Eurozone possess
different kinds of policies, from social security to commercial laws.
The fact that the European market is not complete is what disadvantages
High levels of corruption, criminality, and inefficiencies in the
country’s bureaucratic and banking systems are additional problems in
Italy. None of these problems will be solved by exiting the euro and in
many ways leaving the single currency could achieve the opposite result.
If Italian politicians again have the capacity to determine both fiscal
and monetary policy why should we expect a different situation from
that which occurred in the 1980s, where policies were regularly set with
the aim of securing votes rather than solving existing problems?
Contrary to public opinion, Italy is not respecting important
European legislation in the areas of competition and anti-corruption,
among others. The reasons for this are clear: the Italian system is not
competitive internally, with banks and firms closely connected to each
other, and politics having to take into account the opinion of the
strongest voting blocks. The sale of the ‘old’ Alitalia airline in 2008
is a prominent example, where the Italian government split the company
into two parts and sold the profitable section to a group of Italian
investors, at great cost to taxpayers, under the guise of preventing it
becoming French property.
Earlier this year, in the last period of Enrico Letta’s government, banks were also granted support through a highly unusual operation
which involved hiking the value of the Italian central bank’s share
capital from 156,000 euros to 7.5 billion euros (something which had not
previously been done since the 1930s). The decree simultaneously set a
ceiling of three per cent on the amount of the bank’s shares that could
be owned by any individual stakeholder.
This ensured that other banks such as Intesa and UniCredit were
‘forced’ to sell most of their existing stakes in the Italian central
bank (42 per cent and 22 per cent respectively) back to the central bank
itself at the now greatly increased rate. Contrary to the way it was
presented, the legislation thereby sought to provide substantial
financial support to these banks directly from the central bank.
Normally, if a government helps banks it is required to implement a
change of governance strategy at the banks being granted support (as
happened, for instance, in the United States), but in this case this did
not happen. In Italy, the rule appears to be ‘help without control’ and
this is the real problem. Italian politicians and bureaucracy evidently
do not like to lose power with respect to the European institutions.
A vicious circle
To avoid problems, Italian politicians accept some European
Commission indications related to austerity measures and cuts of public
expenditure. However these are precisely the policies which are harming
the Italian economy as the reduction of workers’ incomes (through labour
reforms) reduces consumption and the level of production.
At the same time, these policies increase unemployment and thereby
raise the amount of public debt. Considering the structural problems
within the Italian economy, the fall in GDP experienced since the start
of the crisis has virtually no limits as firms that close will not be
replaced by others. Moreover, some of the measures within the fiscal
compact and balanced budget requirements have fuelled Euroscepticism.
It is still possible to halt this trajectory with the right reforms.
First, structural funds should be managed by international actors and
not by an Italian bureaucracy which is largely unfit for purpose.
Second, the European institutions should take a tougher line on the
application of EU legislation in Italy, particularly with respect to
anti-corruption laws, public agencies, private firms that work for the
public sector, and the timing of judgements.
Finally, the European Commission should recognise that the economic
conditions in Italy are close to a disaster and remove (temporarily)
some hurdles in terms of public investment to sustain aggregate demand.
This can be done in two ways: by helping firms to change production
processes and by considering universal forms of protection for people
that lose their jobs (such as a basic income). These measures have costs
and may entail being flexible on the current deficit/GDP limit of three
per cent. It may also be necessary to adapt the strategy of the
European Central Bank and move resources directly to these projects
without the intermediation of Italian banks.
Ultimately, the issues surrounding Italian public opinion and the
European Union are generated by the contrast between Italian politicians
and the European institutions. The Italian system is blocked by the
inability of policy-makers to arrive at the correct solutions because
they are scared of disrupting the political consensus.
In this context, the European institutions have to help Italy to
implement reforms – not with absurd economic parameters, but through
anti-corruption laws, social protection, a reduction in inequality and
strict control of European funds to reduce the gap between the South and
the North. The Eurozone may have real problems, but the current exit
strategies being put forward for leaving the single currency are little
more than a smokescreen used by Italian politicians to obscure their own
responsibility for the crisis.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the
position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London
School of Economics.
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