Italy’s Economic Problems Under The Spotlight

As Manuel points out in the accompanying post, Romano Prodi’s resignation as Italy’s Prime Minister is a rather sudden and dramatic, but scarcely unexpected, development. The immediate political crisis may be resolved as rapidly as it appeared, but again as Manuel indicates it may only serve as a prelude for further things to come, and the fragility of any government coalition which may be put together only underlines the difficulties Italy will almost certainly have in addressing what are important ongoing economic problems. The present post will simply attempt to outline some of the main economic problems Italy faces, in order to contextualize the political problem a little.
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Eurozone Economy: When Paradigms Collide

When scientific paradigms collide everyone should duck, at least that is the best advice I can offer at the present moment. The provisional German retail sales for January are now in, and they don’t make especially pleasant reading:

European retail sales dropped for the first time in 10 months in January as spending in Germany slumped, adding to signs economic growth is slowing, the Bloomberg purchasing managers index showed…..German retail sales had the biggest drop in two-and-a-half years, with its index declining to 43.9 from 55.2 in December

Now for those who have been following the German economy in recent months none of this should be particularly surprising, since as is reasonably well known Angela Merkel’s government has just upped VAT from 16% to 19% in an attempt to address the ongoing federal deficit problems. And of course, one months data never offer a complete picture. But this decline in retail consumption in Germany forms part of a much longer ongoing weakness in domestic consumption (and here), one which many were arguing had finally come to an end in 2006. Some of us, however, seriously doubted that this was the case, and hence the initial significance of today’s reading. In particular what we may be faced with are changing structural characteristics of economies as median population ages rise. In particular – and following the well-known life cycle pattern of saving and consumption – more elderly economies may have a higher rate of saving and a lower rate of consumption increase than their younger counterparts.

Some more evidence to back this point of view comes from Japan, where today we learn that household spending in December declined for a 12th straight month, dropping 1.9 percent from a year ago. Yet the Japanese economy is not in recession, and output is actually rising. As Bloomberg say:

Japan’s factory production rose to a record and household spending fell, underscoring the central bank’s concern that growth has bypassed consumers and left the economy dependent on exports.

So please note: growth appears to have by-passed consumers, and the economy is ever more dependent on exports. The same goes for Germany, and this is why I talk about paradigm collision, since the neo-classical theory of economic growth – with its core conception of ‘steady state’ growth – was never built to handle median age related changes in economic performance and structural characteristics. Something new is clearly needed.

Over the coming weeks I will undoubtedly have more to say about all this, as we get to see more of the 2007 Eurozone data, but for now let me point you in the direction of Claus Vistesen, who has been patiently toiling away trying to work through a hypothesis which, in terms of the data we are now seeing, certainly seems more in keeping with current economic realities than the view we currently see emanating from the ECB. His arguments on Japan can be found in depth here, and his latest piece on the eurozone is reproduced below the fold.
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Serbia: That Incredible Shrinking Country

This weekend’s election results in Serbia, and in particular the gridlock state of the political process and the resilience of the vote for the nationalist Serbian Radical Party (as ably explained by Doug in the previous post), pose new, and arguably reasonably urgent questions for all those who are concerned about the future of those European countries who currently find themselves locked outside the frontiers of the European Union. What follows below the fold is a cross-post of an entry I put up earlier this afternoon on the new global economy blog: Global Economy Matters. I don’t normally like cross-posting, since I would prefer to put up original Afoe content, but my time is a bit pressed at the moment, and I feel the issues raised are important enough to merit a separate airing on this site.
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The Perrenial Euro Story (or lack of it)

Brad Setser has a post, the perrenial dollar story, which IMHO, has one large and significant ommission: it doesn’t really mention the euro. Personally I don’t really see how you can consider the future evolution of the dollar without taking the euro into account. This realisation provoked a rather long comment from me on Brad’s blog, and it is this comment, in a slightly modifed form, that I am now posting here. (Update: incidentally, I notice that Claus Vistessen has two highly relevant summaries of the great greenback debate (here, and here) which. among other things, serve as an excellent introdiction to the issues involved).
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Garden Of The Forking Paths?

“Global imbalances matter” seems to be the favoured warcry over at Brad Setser’s blog these days (I’m not sure anyone really disagrees with the idea that they matter, all the arguing seems to be about how much and why). Recently however Brad seems to be drawing support from a rather unexpected quarter: “one part of the Economist” (well, one part is definitely better than none), the part which believes that despite what happened in 2005, 2006 will be the year of the “great dollar decline”: And why would this be? Because, of course, global imbalances do (here read the US CA deficit), in fact, matter.

Now there is another view available on this.

However this issue is more interesting, since the part of the Economist which believes that the US CA deficit will prove decisive in 2006, also seems to believe that global ageing isn’t in fact a terribly important phenomenon (and here).

The Economist seems to take the view – as Claus Vistesen puts it – that “Rich countries’ populations are shrinking … not to worry though“?

In fact Claus seems much nearer the mark than the part of the Economist which seems to be arguing that ageing doesn’t matter too much when he says:

I agree with the zest of their arguments, namely that the new realities mean that there will be fewer people in the workforce to support more old people in the future. In a global perpspective I also believe that the world would benefit from having fewer people on the whole. However, the point that escapes The Economist in the midst of their optimism is that some countries will have a hell of a lot more difficulties adapting than others, and as such these demographic trends might have a real negative effect, at least some places in the world.

Yes, I would say that this is just the point that escapes the ‘ageing doesn’t matter so much’ part of the Economist, who seem to believe that population meltdown in Japan wouldn’t be a problem since “the last Japanese will (only) die as soon as 2800.” (Actually the article on Japan is near to scandalous, since it only focuses on the legal minimum pensionable age, and misses entirely the important point that most Japanese already continue working after 65, and even by the age of 75 25% of the population are still working).

I have already posted extensively on the population turning point in Japan (and here). So now I would simply make two points. Firstly it is the age structure of the population which matters, not its size, and secondly, it is curious how all those people who seem to want to argue that the US current account deficit is the most important determinant of today’s global economy also feel themselves impelled to downplay (if not actually try to ridicule) the idea that changing global demography (from Bolivia, to Vietnam, to Turkey, to China, to France, to Germany, to Japan) has any important role to play in helping us understand current economic phenomena. I think there is a choice here: two world-views are colliding, and the paths are forking.

The Political Fallout of Italy’s Growth Problem

Yesterday the news from Italy was the sudden drop in industrial output, today it is the fact that this makes Berlusconi’s re-election much more uphill work. In particular his coalition just lost a vote in Messina, Sicily, that they normally should have won.

This trend in indutrial output is important for what it implies about growth in Italy this year and next, and this is important for the knock-on implications for Italy’s deficit. This Italian government has incorporated an economic growth target of 1.5 per cent in its 2006 budget, and this target now seems improbable. This means the budget shortfall will be greater than agreed with Brussels, and that the deficit will rise more than anticipated. More problems.

The IMF is critical of the approach the Italian government is taking and has already expressed its fears that Italy will not meet its goal of reducing its budget deficit to 3.8 per cent of gross domestic product in 2006 from 4.3 per cent this year. The principal culprit for the IMF: Italy’s slow productivity growth.

“The nation’s economic problems are essentially ‘made in Italy’,” an IMF report said last month. “The fundamental factor accounting for weak competitiveness, and for a decade of disappointing economic performance, is slow productivity growth. Over 1996-2004, growth of output per hour worked was the lowest among all industrial countries and a cumulative 5.5 percentage points below the euro area average.”

Hungary Gets A Rap On The Knuckles Too

Hungary converted itself into the latest country to join the line of EU members awaiting chastisment for failing to enforce budgetary discipline after it became clear that its deficit for 2005 could be almost double official forecasts.

Joaquín Almunia, EU monetary affairs commissioner, told European finance ministers Hungary’s deficit this year was projected to be 6.1 per cent although some economists say it could top 7 per cent.

The state of Hungary’s public finances was only revealed after the country’s central bank blew the whistle on the government, which used creative accounting to massage down the deficit. The revelation is embarrassing for the European Commission, which reported in July that Hungary was “within reach” of achieving its targeted deficit for 2005 of 3.6 per cent.

Italy’s Perverse Problem

Italy has, of course, it’s own version of the twin deficit: on the one hand a political system which maintains serious democratic and credibility deficits (viz the mutual ppresence of Tremonti and Fazio in Washington this weekend) and the equally important financial deficit which has generally received less attention in the press. (We can leave on one side the growing Balance of Payments current account defecit for the time being). Last Friday Morgan Stanley’s Vicento Guzo drew attention to the government budget deficit issue, describing the task of introducing auterity measures with the backdrop of such lacklustre growth as ‘daunting’, and pointing to one highly ‘perverse’ consequence of Italy’s euro membership:

Market reaction was muted, as usual. Italy keeps benefiting from the euro’s shelter effect. Had this political turmoil occurred ten years ago, outside the common currency influence, it would have probably led to a noticeable rise in the country’s borrowing costs with dangerous ripple effects on its financial system. It may sound as a great achievement, but the path ahead is more treacherous than it looks, in our view. The currency is playing a perverse role, by reducing the incentive to seriously tackle the debt problem. Markets’ appraisal, however, is inherently binary: either they assume Italy will put its debt on a sustainable trajectory or they assume it won’t. This is why the cost of further procrastination might be suddenly high.

The Italian Government Has A New Crisis

Germany isn’t the only EU country where serious ongoing economic problems are leading to political gridlock. Italy’s situation is no better, and arguably worse. This ‘worse’ aspect was pushed into the headlines yesterday by the resignation of Economy Minister Domenico Siniscalco. This is sending shock waves throughout the entire Italian political system. It still isn’t clear at the time of writing whether the Berlusconi government can survive, especially given the gravity of the underlying problem which is the need to make severe budget cuts when Italy is in a prolonged recession and elections loom sometime next spring.

Essentially Siniscalco quit because of continuing government infighting over the 2006 budget and over the administration�s failure to force the resignation of Bank of Italy Governor Antonio Fazio following the scandal produced by accusations that he showed bias against Dutch bank ABN AMRO during a takeover battle for the Italian Banca Antonveneta SpA.
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