Study the numbers and you will find symptoms of distress that look a lot like those of Greece. Public sector debt amounts to roughly 118 percent of the gross domestic product, nearly identical to Greece. And like Greece, Italy is trying to ease fears in the euro zone and elsewhere with an austerity package, one intended to cut the deficit in half, to 2.7 percent of G.D.P., by 2012.-Is Italy Too Italian?
But dig a little deeper and the similarities end. The Italians, unlike the Greeks, are born savers, and much of the Italian debt is owned by the Italians. That means that unlike Greece, which will be sending a sizable percentage of its G.D.P. to foreign creditors for a generation to come, Italy is basically in hock to its own citizens.
“I know that in the States, all Mediterranean countries get lumped together,” says Carlo Altomonte, an economist with Bocconi University in Milan. “But Italy’s problem isn’t that we have a lot of debt. It’s that we don’t grow.” ...
But sales for Luciano Barbera clothing and Carlo Barbera fabric have drastically slowed in recent years. In the late ’90s, the mill enjoyed record annual sales of what amounts to about $15.5 million, Mr. Barbera says. Last year, the figure was half that sum.
WHEN describing the ills of his businesses, Mr. Barbera tends to focus on one issue: the “Made in Italy” label. For the last decade, he says, a growing number of clothing designers have been buying cheaper fabric in China, Bulgaria and elsewhere and slapping “Made in Italy” on garments, even if those garments are merely sewn here.
Until recently, there weren’t any rules about what “Made in Italy” actually meant, but that will change when a new law goes into effect in October. It states that if at least two stages of production — there are four stages altogether — occur in Italy, a garment is made in Italy....
To understand why his factory, and so much of Italy, is stagnant or worse, requires a bit of geopolitical history and a look at the highly idiosyncratic business culture here. It is defined, to a large degree, by deep-seated mistrust — not just of the government, but of anyone who isn’t part of the immediate family — as well as a widespread aversion to risk and to growth that to American eyes looks almost quaint...
FIVE years ago, Francesco Giavazzi needed a taxi. Cabs are relatively scarce in Milan, especially at 5 a.m., when he wanted to head to the airport, so he called a company at 4:30 to schedule a pickup. But when he climbed into the cab half an hour later, he discovered that the meter had been running for more than 20 minutes, because the taxi driver had arrived soon after the call and started charging for his time. Allowed by the rules, but to Mr. Giavazzi, utterly unfair.
“So it was 20 euros before we started the trip to the airport,” recalls Mr. Giavazzi, who is an economics professor at Bocconi University. “I said, ‘This is impossible.’ ”
Professor Giavazzi later wrote an op-ed article denouncing this episode as another example of the toll exacted by Italy’s innumerable guilds, known by several names here, including “associazioni di categoria.” (These are different from unions, another force here, in that guilds are made up of independent players in a trade or profession who have joined to keep outsiders out and maintain standards, as opposed to representing employees in negotiations with management, as a union might.) Even baby sitters have associations in Italy.
The op-ed did not endear Professor Giavazzi to the city’s cab drivers. They pinned leaflets with his name and address at taxi stands around Milan and for the next five nights, cabs drove around his home, honking their horns.
“This is a country with a lot of rents,” says Professor Giavazzi, sitting in his office one recent afternoon, using the economists’ term for excess profits that flow to a business because of a lack of competition. “You need a notary public, it’s like 1,000 euros before you even open your mouth. If you’re a notary public in this country, you live like a king.”...
Roughly one-quarter of Italy’s G.D.P. is off the books. When you inquire about the cause and persistence of this longstanding fact of life, people here say that most Italians have little sense of national identity, an obstacle to a system of national taxation. The country didn’t really begin to transcend its clannish roots and regional dialects until after World War II; even today, displays of national pride are reserved for World Cup victories and little else.
Italians, notes Professor Altomonte, are among the world’s heaviest consumers of bottled water. “Do you know why? Because the water in the tap comes from the government.”...
The suspicion of Italians when it comes to extra-familial institutions explains why many here care more about protecting what they have than enhancing their wealth. Most Italians live less than a mile or two from their parents and stay there, often for financial benefits like cash and in-kind services like day care. It’s an insularity that runs all the way up to the corporate suites. The first goal of many entrepreneurs here isn’t growth, so much as keeping the business in the family. For a company to really expand, it needs capital, but that means giving up at least some control. So thousands of companies here remain stubbornly small — all of which means Italy is a haven for artisans but is in a lousy position to play the global domination game...
To Professor Giavazzi, the future here doesn’t look like Greece. It looks like Argentina.
“Before World War II, Argentina was rich,” he says. “Even in 1960, the country was twice as rich as Italy.” Today, he says, you can compare the per capita income of Argentina to that of Romania. “Because it didn’t grow. A country could get rich in 1900 just by producing corn and meat, but that is not true today. But it took them 100 years to realize they were becoming poor. And that is what worries me about Italy. We’re not going to starve next week. We are just going to decline, slowly, slowly, and I’m not sure what will turn that around.”
Sunday, August 1, 2010
Lack of Self Discovery in Italy
An interesting piece on problems with Italian economy;