Well despite the fact that Wolfgang Munchau seems to feel that the Prodi coalition is shaky, but not about to collapse, I continue to have my worries, and here's why:
A dispute about pensions reform erupted in Italy’s government at the weekend immediately after Romano Prodi, prime minister, extracted pledges of loyalty to his leadership from the squabbling parties in his centre-left coalition.
Mr Prodi said all nine parties in his government had agreed to start discussions next January on overhauling Italy’s state pensions system, but two communist parties that hold the balance of power in parliament contradicted him.
The problem is that Prodi is very much between a rock and a hard place. The deficit cannot be brought back under control without substantial health and pension reforms, and some of the members of his coalition are unlikely to ever vote for real and meaningful reforms since they are in denial that these are necessary. So we seem rather destined to wobble forward until we eventually fall over, caught as he is between the ratings agencies on the one side and his ex-communist allies on the other. Trying to stay in the middle here just will not work. Really, to make any sort of economic prognosis about Italy you need to factor-in this problem.
On other matters Prodi is apparently forecasting economic growth of 3%, this is a very attractive idea, but if you look at Italys growth trajectory over the last 5 decades, this is now, quite simply, to live in cloud cuckoo land. I have, it seems, to agree with his political opponent:
(Prodi)..said his government had set its sights on boosting Italy’s annual gross domestic product growth rate to 3 per cent, far in excess of the 1.3 per cent that, according to the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, is Italy’s present rate.
“Prodi has had a mid-autumn night’s dream, talking about staying in power for five years and increasing GDP growth to 3 per cent a year,” said Fabrizio Cicchitto, an opposition legislator, said on Sunday.
Also, and in conclusion, don't miss this, it gives an indication of the scale of the problem:
Pensions expenditure accounts for 14.7 per cent of Italy’s GDP, the highest in the 15 countries that made up the European Union before its expansion to 25 member-states in 2004.
The burden constrains Italy’s ability to reduce its public debt, forecast this year to be 107.6 per cent of GDP, and cramps much-needed investment in education and infrastructure.
Under a law passed by the government of Silvio Berlusconi, the former centre-right premier, the retirement age for many Italians will rise to 60 from 57 in January 2008.
There is a reasonably intelligent analysis of all this by Tony Barber in the FT. Obviously, and in particular, I notice this:
Unlike some non-Italians, practically no Italian expert questions the country’s ability to remain in Europe’s monetary union. Nonetheless, few hide their worries about the chronic lack of economic reform and the political paralysis that partly accounts for it.
“The divergence between the growth in labour cost per unit produced in Italy and in the rest of the euro area is not sustainable,” Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, Italy’s member of the European Central Bank’s executive board, said in August. “In the next 10 years, it is absolutely necessary that salaries rise in line with productivity growth, if not at a slower rate.”
Obviously Lorenzo Bini Smaghi does not share Eric Chaney's optimistic reading of the situation (I will have more to say on all this in another moment). Also there is this:
“We have a country that is too slow in taking decisions and has too many competing power centres,” Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, head of Confindustria, Italy’s employers’ association, told the Financial Times this month. “A parliamentary system with 23 parties cannot function efficiently. Without a strong bipartisan reform of the state, including electoral reform, our country is destined not to grow. Ten years from now, we will be paying for the non-choices of today.”
Absolutely to the point I think. As is his observation on the plight of the DS and Margherita:
For the parties that have most to lose from Mr Prodi’s dwindling credibility as a reformer are the Democrats of the Left (DS) and the Margherita, the two largest in his coalition........the electoral success of the DS and Margherita depends on their ability to persuade voters that they can be intelligent managers of Italy’s capitalist system and will not “punish the middle classes”.
To the dismay of DS and Margherita strategists, opinion polls suggest large numbers of Italians think Mr Prodi’s budget falls short on both counts. Not surprisingly, Piero Fassino and Francesco Rutelli, the parties’ leaders, are insisting to Mr Prodi that the government waste no more time in launching economic reforms.
They call it the government’s “phase two” – and they may not have been happy to hear Mr Prodi describe this phrase last Wednesday as “a term I don’t know and don’t use”.
Centre-left politicians dismiss as “nonsense” the rumours in Rome that a plot is afoot to oust Mr Prodi. Yet no one has forgotten how Mr Prodi’s 1996-98 premiership ended: he was overthrown in a parliamentary revolt led by communists but exploited by other politicians to replace him with Massimo D’Alema, now foreign minister.
Publicly, almost everyone on the centre-left says that, if Mr Prodi’s government were to fall, perhaps because of a lost confidence vote in the Senate, Italy would hold a snap general election. But matters may not be so simple.
Silvio Berlusconi, the opposition leader, wants an election because, at the age of 70, it is his best hope of holding the premiership one more time. But not all his centre-right colleagues are thrilled at this prospect. For example, Pier Ferdinando Casini, a Christian Democrat often tipped as a future premier, says he sees no need to hold an election. Rather, a new government based on Italy’s moderate parties of left and right could take over.
This kind of realignment would halt Italy’s never entirely convincing progression since the early 1990s towards a system that clearly distinguishes left from right.
Some respected figures such as Mario Monti, the former European commissioner, favour it because it would deny power to extremists in both coalitions – communists on the left, the rabble-rousing Northern League and some elements in the National Alliance on the right. It might even boost the prospects for economic reform.
However, it would undoubtedly revive memories of the years from 1948 to 1994, when the former Christian Democratic party dominated a political system increasingly discredited by corruption, economic incompetence, political violence and organised crime.
Whether Italy is ready for such a political upheaval remains to be seen, but the present system – reinforced by the re-introduction last December of full proportional representation in general elections – appears to have an inbuilt tendency to block reform.
Given his hair’s-breadth election victory, Mr Prodi’s window of opportunity was always going to be narrow. But the pressure on him is intense because, in five years of power, Mr Berlusconi introduced few notable reforms. In spite of holding a parliamentary majority stronger than any government had enjoyed since the collapse of fascism, the former prime minister achieved little except some modest changes to the pension system and labour market.
Italy’s budget deficit climbed above 4 per cent of GDP under Mr Berlusconi. It is forecast this year to reach 107.6 per cent of GDP (the European Union’s treaties stipulate that countries joining the eurozone should have debts of 60 per cent of GDP or less). Excluding debt interest payments, Italy’s budget balance needs to be about 2 per cent of GDP in surplus to prevent the debt stock from increasing. In the last years of the Berlusconi government, this surplus shrank so much that the public debt rose for the first time in a decade.
With deficit and debt reduction a priority, Mr Prodi’s government published a four-year outlook in July that promised deep and permanent spending cuts in public sector employment, healthcare, welfare and local government. Equally welcome were measures to open some of Italy’s notoriously protected professions and product markets to competition. Lawyers, notaries, pharmacists, taxi drivers and others with privileges more suited to the Middle Ages than a modern economy would no longer be able to keep prices high and exclude outsiders.
Since August, the flame of reformist zeal has burned less brightly. Although the 2007 budget aims to cut Italy’s deficit to below 3 per cent, it does so mainly by raising taxes and cracking down on tax evasion, rather than making the spending cuts promised in July. On October 19 Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings, the credit ratings agencies, criticised the budget and downgraded Italy’s government debt.
Mr Montezemolo says: “We have to get out of the vicious circle of ‘more taxes, more spending and therefore still more taxes’. We can do it. It may not be popular, but we need cuts, cuts and more cuts.”
This month, internal government disputes have caused the budget to undergo continual revision, a process that Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, finance minister, defends as entirely normal.
He told the magazine L’Espresso: “Once it was said that the novel is by definition an imperfect literary genre, that it can’t be like a sonnet in which everything is perfect. So it is with the budget. In a novel a woman walks into the room wearing red. Then when she leaves she is described as wearing blue, because the author has forgotten she was in red. Such inconsistencies can also be found in the budget. The parliamentary process is needed to correct them.”
Come December, Italians will know if their government has successfully edited its “imperfect novel”. Meanwhile, the “perfect sonnet” of economic reform is a verse form no Italian government seems capable of mastering.
Italy Economy Real Time Data Charts
Edward Hugh is only able to update this blog from time to time, but he does run a lively Twitter account with plenty of Italy related comment. He also maintains a collection of constantly updated Italy economy charts together with short text updates on a Storify dedicated page Italy - Lost in Stagnation?