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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 an

Publishing date
25 November 2014
Jim O‘Neill

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"

About the authors

  • Jim O‘Neill

    After being on its board since inception, Jim became a Visiting Research Fellow to Bruegel in September 2013. He planned  to conduct research on aspects of changing global trade, global governance, and measuring better and targeting higher sustainable economic growth.

    Jim worked for Goldman Sachs (GS) from 1995 until April 2013. He joined Goldman in 1995 as a partner, Chief Currency Economist and co-head of Global Economics Research. From 2001 through 2010, he was Chief Economist and head of Economics, Commodities and Strategy Research (ECS). In September 2010, he became Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management (GSAM).

    Prior to joining GS, Jim was head of research, globally, for Swiss Bank Corporation (SBC) from 1991 to 1995. He joined SBC in 1988. Prior to that, he worked for Bank of America and International Treasury Management, a division of Marine Midland Bank.

    Jim is the creator of the acronym BRICs. He has published much research about BRICs (which has become synonymous with the emergence of Brazil, Russia, India and China) and the broader emerging markets, as the growth opportunities of the future. This autumn, Jim is making a series for BBC Radio 4 about Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey, due to be aired in January 2014.

    Jim is on the board of a number of research organisations including, Itinera, the UK-India Round Table and the UKIBC. He is also Chairman of the Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership Advisory Board.

    He is one of the founding trustees of the UK educational charity, SHINE. Jim also serves on the board of ‘Teach for All’ and a number of other charities specialising in education and in September 2013 he became a Non-Executive Director of the UK Government’s Department of Education.

    Previously, Jim served as a Non-Executive Director of Manchester United before it returned to private ownership in 2005.

    In 1978, Jim earned a degree in economics from Sheffield University and in 1982 a PhD from the University of Surrey. He received an Honorary Doctorate from the Institute of Education, University of London, in 2009 for his educational philanthropy.

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