Blog Post

A crazy idea about Italy

Italy needs growth in nominal GDP to stop its debt burden from rising any further. It also needs to reform its economy, raise its productivity and boost its labour force to do this in a lasting way. But as long as it remains a member of the euro system, there'll be no aid from a devalued currency. This means it needs Germany's help.

By: Date: November 25, 2014 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

I’ve spent a good deal of my 35 years as an economic and financial analyst puzzling over Italy. Studying its economy was my first assignment in this business — as a matter of fact, Italy was the first foreign country I ever flew to. I’m just back from a vacation in Puglia and Basilicata. Over the decades, the question has never really changed: How can such a wonderful country find it such a perpetual struggle to succeed?

Over the decades, the question of Italy has never really changed: How can such a wonderful country find it such a perpetual struggle to succeed?

All the while, Italy has pitted weak government against a remarkably adaptable private sector and a particular prowess in small-scale manufacturing. An optimist by nature, I’ve generally believed these strengths would prevail and Italy would prosper regardless. In the days before Europe’s economic and monetary union, though, it had one kind of flexibility it now lacks: a currency, which it could occasionally devalue. These periodic injections of stronger competitiveness were a great help to Fiat and other big exporters, and to smaller companies too.

The rest of Europe had mixed feelings about this readiness to restore competitiveness through devaluation — meaning at their expense. When discussions began about locking Europe’s exchange rates and moving to a single currency, opinions divided among the other partners, notably Germany and France, on what would be in their own best interests. Many German conservatives, including some at the Bundesbank, doubted Italy’s commitment to low inflation, which they wanted to enshrine as Europe’s chief monetary goal. On the other hand, leaving Italy outside the euro would leave their own competitiveness vulnerable to occasional lira devaluations.

In the end, of course, the decision was made to bring Italy in. The fiscal rules that were adopted at the same time — including the promise to keep the budget deficit below 3 percent of gross domestic product — can be seen as an effort to force Italy to behave itself. Now and then I wondered if some saw them as a way to make it impossible for Italy to join at all. In any event, Italy found itself doubly hemmed in, with no currency to adjust and severely limited fiscal room for maneuver.

Between 2007 and 2014 Italy has done better than most in keeping its cyclically adjusted deficit under control, yet its debt-to-GDP ratio has risen sharply

The results haven’t been good. It’s ironic that between 2007 and 2014 Italy has done better than most in keeping its cyclically adjusted deficit under control — yet its debt-to-GDP ratio has risen sharply. The reason is persistent lack of growth in nominal GDP, itself partly due to an overvalued currency and tight budgetary restraint.

Italy is the euro area’s third-largest economy and its third-most populous country. Given this, the scale of its debts and everything we’ve learned about Europe’s priorities during the creation of the euro and since, I’ve always presumed that, in the end, Germany would do whatever was necessary to protect Italy from the kind of financial blow-up that hit Greece in 2010. Now I am starting to wonder.

Italy needs growth in nominal GDP to stop its debt burden from rising any further. Yes, it also needs to reform its economy, raise its productivity and boost its labour force to do this in a lasting way. But as long as it remains a member of the euro system, there’ll be no aid from a devalued currency.

This means it needs Germany’s help — not just through greater fiscal flexibility, which is essential, but also through a rise in euro-area inflation back to the European Central Bank’s target of "below, but close to, 2 percent." It will be almost impossible for the euro area to do this unless Germany itself sees consumer-price inflation rise to that rate or higher.

Come to think of it, perhaps Italy could impose a punitive tax on German tourists? I know. That would be crazy

As I travelled around Italy on this latest trip, I imagined a different kind of Germanic rigidity. How about a zero-tolerance approach to inflation that falls below target? Perhaps German citizens should pay an extra tax each year the country experiences inflation that is below but not close to 2 percent — with the penalty increasing in proportion to the shortfall? The proceeds could be distributed to countries with a cyclically adjusted fiscal deficit of less than 3 percent and less-than-trend GDP growth. Come to think of it, perhaps Italy could impose a punitive tax on German tourists?

I know. That would be crazy. But would it be any crazier than insisting on an arbitrary fiscal-deficit rule, unadjusted for the economic cycle — or letting demand fall so low that Europe misses its inflation target by a mile, and in a way that condemns Italy and others to endless recession? I’d say it’s a close call.


Republished with permission from Bloomberg View

Read also on Italy:

Austerity Tales: the Netherlands and Italy

Why does Italy not grow?

"It’s true, Italy breaks your heart"


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

View comments
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

What has driven the votes for Germany’s right-wing Alternative für Deutschland?

The AfD vote in East Germany was consistently stronger than in the West, even after controlling for income, age, education, religion and the overall rural nature of the new Bundesländer.

By: Alexander Roth and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 5, 2017
Read article More by this author

Opinion

A Jamaican Germany is good for Europe

After a surprising election result, Europe is closely watching German coalition negotiations. A so-called Jamaica coalition of conservatives, liberals and greens is the most likely outcome, but many fear this will be bad for the EU and the Eurozone. Not so, argues Guntram Wolff. In fact, a shift to Jamaica could be good news for Europe.

By: Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 29, 2017
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

Policy Contribution

A European perspective on overindebtedness

The sequence of crisis and policy responses after mid-2007 was a gradual recognition of the unsustainability of the euro-area policy framework. The bank-sovereign vicious circle was first observed in 2009 and became widely acknowledged in the course of 2011 and early 2012. The most impactful initiative has been the initiation of a banking union in mid-2012, but this remains incomplete and needs strengthening.

By: Nicolas Véron and Jeromin Zettelmeyer Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 28, 2017
Read article More on this topic

Opinion

A resilient Euro needs Franco-German compromise

In a piece signed by 15 leading French and German economists, Nicolas Véron lays out a path to a more sustainable Euro. Germany will need to accept some form of risk sharing. France will need to allow more market discipline. But the two countries can find a common vision for reforms

By: Agnès Bénassy-Quéré, Markus K. Brunnermeier, Lars Feld, Marcel Fratzscher, Philippe Martin, Hélène Rey, Isabel Schnabel, Nicolas Véron, Beatrice Weder di Mauro, Jeromin Zettelmeyer, Henrik Enderlein, Emmanuel Farhi, Clemens Fuest, Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas and Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 27, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Global Imbalances

The recent IMF’s External Sector Report highlighted the persistence of imbalances and a switch of imbalances towards advanced economies. We review recent contributions on this topic.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: September 21, 2017
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Should the EU have the power to vet foreign takeovers?

Should the EU have the power to vet foreign takeovers? André Sapir and Alicia Garcia-Herrero debate the issue, which has become topical in view of recent Chinese investment in Europe.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and André Sapir Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: September 1, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Italian economic growth and the Euro

While the Euro has frequently been blamed for the poor growth performance of Italy over the years, a long-term analysis shows deteriorating growth before the introduction of the Euro. Additionally, Italy has shown worse performance than other euro-periphery countries, such as Spain, implying deeper structural reasons for Italy’s economic malaise.

By: Francesco Papadia Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 26, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

A tangled tale of bank liquidation in Venice

What can we learn about the Italian banking sector from the decision to liquidate Veneto Banca and Banca Popolare di Vicenza? Silvia Merler sees a tendency for Italy to let politics outweigh economics.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Date: June 26, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Nord Stream 2 means gains for Germany but pain for Europe

The proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline could destabilise European energy cooperation and offer Gazprom excessive influence in Central and Eastern Europe. These disadvantages do not justify the commercial benefits for German companies.

By: Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate Date: June 23, 2017
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Sovereign exposure limits

On 19th June, we are hosting an invitation-only workshop on sovereign exposure limits.

Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: June 19, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Nord Stream 2 can wait

Gazprom is pushing ahead with plans to build a second gas pipeline under the Baltic sea, straight form Russia to Germany. Supporters claim that Ukraine cannot be relied on as a transit partner, and that Europe will need more gas in the future. Georg Zachmann is unconvinced, and argues that the project should wait.

By: Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate Date: June 13, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Debt relief or a fourth financial assistance programme for Greece?

The Eurogroup faces a difficult choice on Greece — implementing a debt reduction plan drastic enough to make a return to market borrowing possible, or agreeing to a fourth financial assistance programme and continuing to fund Greece at the preferential lending rate.

By: Zsolt Darvas Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: May 22, 2017
Load more posts