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?

Sunday, May 11, 2003

Social Unrest Contagion

Morgan Stanley's Vicenzo Guzzo on the probablems of selling pension reform.

In a surprise move, earlier this week, Italian Labor Minister Roberto Maroni opted not to attend the planned meeting with the representatives of the three confederate unions, CGIL, CISL, and UIL. The meeting took place as scheduled, but it was effective downgraded to a technical roundtable with the experts of the ministry, defying the expectations of the unions, which were ready to oppose some of the issues at stake on more political grounds. Since then, events have taken a sharp turn for the worse. Union leaders are now threatening industrial action, which eventually could lead to a general strike. A decision will be taken on May 14. Along the same script played by their French peers (see Showdown in France, May 6, 2003), are the Italian unions about to stage a day of general strike? Is the proposal of a reform of the pension system going to clash with public opinion and shake the foundations of the governing coalition, repeating the painful experience of 1994-95? Will a wave of social unrest once again swamp any restructuring attempt and prove Europe's intrinsic inability to reform? These and several other questions must be crossing the minds of international investors at a time when the Euro economy appears to be pinned between an overvalued currency and restrictive fiscal conditions.

The reform of the Italian social security system pivots on the proposal of channelling future flows of severance payments (known as TFR or 'Trattamento di Fine Rapporto'), currently sitting on the balance sheet of Corporate Italy, into pension funds, enhancing the scope of a second privately funded pillar. Companies, which so far have benefited from this free source of cash flow, worth nearly €13 billion a year, would be compensated by a reduction in social contribution rates of up to five percentage points (dubbed “de-contribution”). Closed funds, whose affiliates belong to a given industry or sector, and open funds, whose subscription is available to all workers, would be subject to the same tax regime. Unions oppose three key points: they argue that any decision on TFR should be left to the worker rather than being mandatory; they are against the de-contribution model; and finally, they think that investment in closed funds should be encouraged through more aggressive incentives.

The government will probably have to make concessions in order to avoid a strike. Social security is a sensitive issue. The memories of the 1994-95 strikes, which eventually led to the collapse of the first Berlusconi government, are still vivid, and the cabinet will want to avoid the road of open confrontation. Yet a 14% pension expenditure-to-GDP ratio, one of the highest among the industrial countries; a stock of public debt well in excess of 100% of GDP; and a fully public-funded pay-as-you-go system together with poor demographic prospects are all compelling arguments for reforms even more ambitious than those currently being debated.

We do not think that the recent events have dented the stability of the government coalition, nor would we interpret them as a sign of a rejuvenated union front whose critical mass could weigh on other hot issues, such as the labor market. True, on June 15 Italian citizens will be asked to cast a vote in a referendum on the famous Article 18, a piece of legislation that up until last year forced large companies to re-hire those employees whose dismissal was regarded as unfair. But the referendum proposal, which goes beyond the original formulation by extending strong labor protection to small enterprises, is likely to fail, lacking the support of CISL UIL and the Democrats of the Left, the largest party of the center-left coalition. Even CGIL, which has always opposed labor market reform, appears split on the vote. The bottom line is that this is not 1995, and unions are far more fragmented than they were at that time.
Source: Morgan Stanley Global Economic Forum

Why Japan's Slump Matters to Italy

Despite the fact that John Snow was cheerfully informing us earlier this week that 'deflation is a monetary phenomenon', some inveterate doubters remain unconvinced. Yours truly for one: I think this view is nonesense. Fortunately from time to time more signs of intelligent life appear on the planet's surface. I have no idea who Eddie Lee is, or what he thinks about most matters that affect our civilization. But one thing I do know, he has learnt something from what is currently going off in Japan. And another thing I know is that he must have read something from me somewhere along the line: from one 'Eddie' to another, thanks mate.

The Japanese government is widely expected to propose an array of measures to bolster the country's stock market soon. Japanese banks' massive stockholdings leave them extremely vulnerable to stock price falls. The price support operation is viewed as a necessary step to prevent a collapse. Yet, hardly anybody is raising an eyebrow. As a regional policy adviser declared recently: 'I don't think the rest of Asia cares much about Japan any more, does it?' It's a sentiment shared by many in Asia.Who can blame this display of apathy? The country has failed to be an engine of growth for so long that nobody's holding his breath. But for anyone thinking about what the future may look like, you can't ignore Japan. The loss of the Japanese engine of growth has had a deeper impact on the rest of Asia than generally appreciated - not just what might have been, but what can be. And it's the future that is the concern, for Japan may be a foretaste of something that might become a more universal problem.

Japan is the first case of a modern economy afflicted by deflation. The typical response to this situation is to say that Japan is unique; the rest of the world 'is not Japan'. How the Japanese state of affairs came to pass is explained by an unusual combination - protected markets, gross inefficiency and a paralytic government that led to a dysfunctional banking system. These factors strangled the production processes and sank the economy. In one of the first books to predict the downfall of the Japanese economy back in 1992, Japan: The Coming Collapse, Brian Reading described the Japanese economic system not as 'capitalist with warts' but 'communist with beauty spots'. It was doomed to fail because the keiretsu model was designed to eliminate competition for the benefit of powerful corporate interests.

The solution? Most analysts call for reforms to deregulate the economy, as this is cited as the main cause of the malaise. But this argument is not entirely convincing. An economy suffering from inefficiency should be punished by a low rate of growth rather than the protracted recession Japan suffered for much of the past decade. And inflation, rather than deflation, should be the symptom. It isn't that the banks are unable to lend either. Mr Mitsuru Machida, managing director of the Mizuho Financial Group, says the problem is a lack of borrowers: 'Deposit levels have fallen, but our loan assets have fallen even more, especially among corporate clients - we have more cash at hand.'

Increasingly, economists believe that the more pressing problem lies with a lack of demand. Private consumption expenditure in Japan has been falling every year since 1997. It is, indeed, an unusual situation. What makes this problem particularly disturbing is you'd think getting spending going again in an economy is not a difficult task. But Japan hasn't been able to do this. A possible reason lies in the fact that Japan has the oldest population on Earth, with a median age of 41.3. The government estimates that in three years, the population size will actually start to decline. Japan could be the chilling example of what happens when an ageing society meets an economic recession: You can't shake off the slump.

Take the typical case of the median Japanese man. He's probably still paying a mortgage on his apartment whose value has fallen by 40 per cent in the past decade. However, as he had to accept pay cuts to keep his job - the average monthly salary for the Japanese employee fell during the past two years - his mortgage burden has increased. He has one child who is about to go to college, but for the past decade, his savings in the bank earned next to nothing in interest. Given this prospect, he has to save heavily to make provisions for the future. Even retirees like Mr Tomiya Isshiki, 67, won't dare splurge. He's relatively prosperous with a house in the Tokyo suburbs. He's paid off his mortgage and receives a monthly pension. But he says, as quoted in the Asian Wall Street Journal: 'We are all worried about the future, so we have to save.' Economist Edward Hugh points out that reviving demand in an ageing society is an uphill task. For while young societies can face credit-driven expansions, old societies obviously cannot. If Japan is providing a foretaste of the future, then Europe could be next in line. In particular, Italy, Switzerland and Germany have populations with a median age of around 40 years. In the past two years, these three countries averaged just 0.5 per cent growth with rapidly falling inflation rates. So far, little attention has been paid to this predicament because few think it's a problem. That may be slowly changing. Mr Naohiro Yashiro, president of the Japan Centre for Economic Research, is a man concerned about his country's ageing population. He notes: 'The ageing society is not only a matter of the future, but a matter of the present.'
Source: The Straits Times

More in the Same Vein

Burlusconi admits that the low growth the economy is experiencing limits considerably his room for manoevre. Also don't miss the point about the pensions Maastricht, using the EU as a shield could be just what the local politicians need.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said yesterday that cutting taxes is a top priority for Italy, but that there was little room for manoeuvre since the economy was growing at a rate of less than one per cent. "We have to take into account the economic stagnation, growth is absolutely contained below 1pc," he said at a conference. "We're adding up the numbers." Italy is officially forecasting economic growth of 1.1pc in 2003. On Friday, Berlusconi said he believed cutting Italy's corporate tax rates would give a boost to the country's lacklustre growth. "I am insisting with Economy Minister (Giulio) Tremonti that we head in that direction, even a little. We'll see what we can do," he said . Italy's corporate tax rate currently stands at about 34pc, making it one of the highest in Europe. The prime minister said the general economic outlook was looking good for 2004."We have to be a little more optimistic about the economic situation after having overcome the uncertainties of the war in Iraq... There will be a robust recovery starting next year."

Berlusconi, whose country takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union in July, has said in the past that the EU's strict core Maastricht economic goals needed to be interpreted more loosely and that the EU should come up with an economic stimulus package for Europe. Yesterday, he reiterated his expectations that new EU rules on pensions would be drawn up during his term, making it easier for governments to enforce unpopular pension reforms without taking too much political heat. "A pension Maastricht will be one of the themes of the Italian EU presidency. At the end of the term we should come out with a European regulatory framework.
Source: Gulf News

Italian Economy in the Doldrums

Despite the rhetoric from Berlusconi, the Italian economy is not in good health. I do not anticipate a rapid recovery, especially if ageing has any part of the story to tell. No young people, no immigrants, no future.........and watch out for the deflation knock.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said he'd push for tax cuts next year even though Europe's fourth-biggest economy is sputtering this year and won't recover until 2004. Berlusconi, Italy's wealthiest man, said economic growth this year probably wouldn't exceed 1 percent, which is lower than the 1.1 percent growth forecast made by the government last month. That's hurting revenue and leaving little room for significant tax reductions, he said. ``We can't expect a recovery this year,'' Berlusconi said at a conference of the country's largest retailers' lobby, Confcommercio. ``We'll start to see a robust rebound from the beginning of next year.'' The premier was elected two years ago on the promise of delivering lower taxes. Most Italians and most businesses still haven't seen a reduction in the tax burden. At the same time, Standard & Poor's Corp. said it may lower the country's credit rating in the next couple years if Italy doesn't keep lowering its debt, Europe's largest. There were ``tough talks'' ongoing with Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti to reduce taxes ``even if not by much,'' Berlusconi said. Italy is trying to keep its budget deficit from widening this year even as tax revenue falls.

The April budget deficit more than doubled compared with the same month last year. The government predicts debt will decrease next year as a percentage of gross domestic product as long as a series of tax amnesties in effect this year bring in extra revenue. There haven't yet been any signs of recovery so far this year. April business confidence fell to its lowest in more than a year, and manufacturing probably declined during the first two months of the year. The retailers' lobby pushed the government to go forward with tax cuts and other changes to Italy's economic system such as more flexible labor laws and tax incentives for the tourism industry. Italy's economy was suffering from ``a type of economic SARS,'' said Sergio Bille, president of Confcommercio. Berlusconi said he was confident the economy was slowly picking up steam and vowed to carry through with his campaign promises. Commenting on the fact that consumer spending increased only 0.4 percent last year, Berlusconi quipped to the crowd of businessmen that they should send their wives on shopping sprees. ``My wife and her friends, who are terrible advisers, know exactly how to boost consumer spending,'' he said
Source: Bloomberg

Italian Internet Use

About 27 pct of Italians use the internet at least once every three months, resulting in 12.7 million more users than there were two years ago. Weekly web navigators amounted to 17 pct, or 8.2 million. The Italian numbers are still low when compared to other European countries (Great Britain 50 pct, Germany 43 pct, France 37 pct, while Spain is lower still with 22 pct) and the United States, where 72 pct of the population uses the web. The Italian region with the most connections is Lombardy (36.6 pct), followed by Marche-Umbria (33,5 pct), Liguria and Emilia Romagna (32,9 pct), Tuscany (32,2 pct), Veneto-Friuli Venezia Giulia-Trentino Alto Adige (28,4 pct), Lazio (28,3 pct), Campania (22,5 pct), Abruzzo-Molise (21,9 pct), Piemonte-Valle d'Aosta (21,6 pct), Sicily(18,3 pct), Sardegna (18 pct), Basilicata-Calabria (17,4 pct) and Puglia (14,7 pct). Although altogether, the number in the North surpass 30 pct in the North and Central regions, the South and islands are at around 18.7 pct, according to a study carried out by Cnel (National Council for Economy and Labor) in collaboration with Eurisiko for the analysis of dimensions, segments, needs, and network logic.

Network users connect mostly from home (8,500,000 people), but also from work (3,840,000), friends homes (3,320,000), school (2,020,000), coffee shops (580,000), libraries or training courses (290,000). More men than women use the net: 32.8 pct of men use the net, while only 20.4 pct of their female counterparts do. Among the 14 to 24 age category, 57.3 pct use the net, between 25 and 34, 43.4 pct do, between 35 and 44, 28.3 pct, and 7.9 pct of those over 44 navigate. Most web users have university degrees and medium-high incomes. Internet is used 33.5 pct of workers (especially businesspeople, freelance workers, managers, and office workers) 21.1 pct by people who don't work (69.1 pct students, 40.4 pct unemployed, 5 pct housewives, and 2.1 pct pensioners). Half know some English, and 23 pct know how to use the computer somewhat (31 pct very well, 38 pct fairly well). Those who reported an elevated understanding of the net amounted to 29 pct, a medium understanding 44 pct, and a low understanding 27 pct. very well.

Approximately 80 percent of internet customers use the network for electronic mail, 57 percent to seek useful information (in particular 44 percent news regarding jobs), 37 percent for study purposes, 33 percent for downloading programs, 32 percent to read the latest news, 20 percent to research bibliographies, 19 percent to listen to music, 17 percent to meet new people, 15 percent for banking services, nine percent to make bookings and seven percent for purchases. On line purchases include books, CDs, hardware, tickets and mobile phone services. However 42 percent say they are unprepared for electronic commerce and 19 percent say there are not interested in it.

The presence of Internet is ever more important in the world of business. Over 69 percent are internet linked and 32 percent have their own site, which is used almost totally to provide information on their own products and services. Access to Internet provides above all for the use of electronic mail (93 percent), the search for general news (72 percent) or suppliers (82 percent), to download programs (36 percent), various services (21 percent) and on line purchases (16 percent). The latter applies in 45 percent of cases to ICT products, 38 percent materials or party worked items, 31 percent banking or financial services, 24 percent travel services and 19 percent machinery and other office items.
Source: Agenzia Giornalistica Italia
Italy's Immigration Scandal

With government debt at over 100% of GDP, an unsustainable pensions system, and poor economic groth prospects all round, The Italian Government's attitute towards the much needed immigration is nothing short of scandalous:

United against the Government's immigration policies. During tense times of political clashes concerning metalworkers contracts, and insults aimed at Cisl General Secretary, Savino Pezzotta in Lucca, the Cgil, Cisl and Uil Unions have finally come to a unanimous position on an important subject.The three Unions are joining forces for a protest in front of the Welfare Ministry on Thursday at 10am to criticise the Fini-Bossi immigration law, which they define "as hostile and discriminatory towards immigrants. They also wish to underline that "nine months since its coming into force, there are no traces of a regulation of its carrying out." In a joint statement they claim "we are in May and we still know nothing about the decree concerning the entrance of foreign workers 2003. Foreign workers with all necessary papers in order are being told by the Welfare Ministry that they cannot change jobs." They continue by saying that at the end of April only a little more than the 703,000 applications for legalisation have been dealt with, meaning the majority are unable to re-enter their home countries. "There is no talk of integration policies. We have asked the Ministry about this long ago but they are not listening. This situation is frankly no longer tolerable if you that the immigrants are not even given the right to speak and defend themselves."
Source: Agenzia Giornalistica Italia