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Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

I’m not an optimist about Europe’s economic future.

Most nations have excessive welfare states and punitive taxes, which is hardly good news. You then have to consider demographic trends such as aging populations (i.e., more people relying on government) and falling birthrates (i.e., fewer future taxpayers).

That’s a very grim combination.

Indeed, this is a big reason why I favored Brexit. Yes, it was largely about escaping an increasingly dirigiste European bureaucracy in Brussels, but it was also about not being chained to a continent with a dismal long-run outlook.

More than one year ago, before there were any concerns about a coronavirus-instigated economic crisis, Vijay Victor, an economist from Szent Istvan University in Hungary, expressed concern about Europe’s fiscal future in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education.

The debt crisis in the Eurozone is getting no better, even in the wake of the new year. The five countries in the Eurozone with the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the third quarter of 2018 were Greece, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, and Spain. The total debt of Greece is around 182.2 percent of its GDP and that of Italy is 133 percent… Dawdling economic growth coupled with low-yield investment options are dragging these indebted economies toward insolvency… Unemployment rates, for example, are still very high in most of these highly indebted European economies. Despite the recurrent monetary assistance and policy support, job creation is weak, which might imply that the debt financing is channelized in a nonproductive direction.

By the way, I can’t resist taking this opportunity to remind people that debt is a problem, but it also should be viewed as a symptom of en even-bigger problem, which is an excessive burden of government spending.

A bloated welfare state is a drag on economic performance, whether it’s financed by borrowing or taxes.

Though nations that try to finance big government with red ink eventually spend their way into crisis (as defined by potential default).

And we may be reaching that point.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise has authored a very grim assessment, focusing primarily on Italy, for the National Interest.

Today, with Italy at the epicenter of the world coronavirus epidemic, it would seem to be only a matter of time before the durability of the Euro is again tested by another full-blown Italian sovereign debt crisis. …even before the coronavirus epidemic struck its economy was weak while its public finances and banking system were in a state of poor health. After having experienced virtually no economic growth over the past decade, the Italian economy again entered into a recession by end-2019. At the same time, at 135 percent its public debt to GDP ratio was higher than it was in 2012 while its banks’ balance sheets remained clogged with non-performing loans and Italian government bonds. …the coronavirus epidemic will seriously damage both Italy’s public finances and its banking system…by throwing the country into its deepest economic recession in the post-war period. That in turn is bound to cause Italy’s budget deficit to balloon and its banking system’s non-performing loans to skyrocket as more of its households and companies file for bankruptcy. …all too likely that the Italian economy will shrink by at least 10 percent in 2020.

All this matters because the people and institutions that purchase government debt may decide that Italy’s outlook is so grim that they will be very reluctant to buy the country’s bonds (i.e., they’ll be very hesitant about lending money to the Italian government because of a concern that they won’t get paid back).

This means that the Italian government will have to pay much higher interest rates in order to compensate lenders for the risk of a potential default.

So what are the implications? Will Italy default, or will there be some sort of bailout?

If the latter, Lachman predicts it will be huge.

One way to gauge the amount of public money that might be needed to prop up Italy is to consider that over the past decade it took around US$300 billion in official support to keep Greece in the Euro. Given that the Italian economy is around ten times the size of that of Greece, this would suggest that Italy might very well need around $3 trillion in official support to keep Italy in the Euro. …Meanwhile, Italy’s US$4 trillion banking system could very well need at least US$1 trillion in official support to counter the capital flight and the spike in non-performing loans that are all too likely to occur in the event of a deep Italian recession.

For what it’s worth, Lachman thinks a bailout would be desirable.

I disagree. Default is a better choice because it will discipline the Italian government (it would mean an overnight balanced budget requirement since nobody will lend money to the government) and also discipline foolish lenders who thought Italian politicians were a good bet.

Simply stated, we should minimize moral hazard.

I also think it’s worth noting that Italy isn’t the only government at risk of fiscal crisis. Here’s the OECD data for major nations, including a few non-European examples.

Japan wins the prize for the most red ink, though this doesn’t mean Japan is most vulnerable to a default, at least in the short run.

A fiscal crisis is driven by investor sentiment (i.e., when will people and institutions decide they no longer trust a government to pay back loans). And that depends on a range of factors, including trust.

The bottom line is that investors trust the Japanese government and they don’t trust the Italian government.

That being said, I think all of the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain) are very vulnerable.

And politicians in Ireland, Belgium, and France should be nervous as well.

I’ll close by sharing some calculations, based on the aforementioned OECD data, showing which nations used last decade’s economic recovery to improve their balance sheets.

Congratulations to Germany and Switzerland for fiscal responsibility, and mild applause for the Netherlands and Sweden.

I’ve highlighted (in red) the nations that were most reckless.

Though keep in mind that you want to look at both the trend for debt (far-right column) and the existing level of debt (the next-to-far-right column). So I’m not overly worried about Australia. Debt is still comparatively low, even though it almost doubled last decade.

But all of the PIGS are in trouble.

So if economic conditions deteriorate in Europe, the fallout could be significant.

P.S. The United Kingdom, like Japan, benefits from a high level of trust – presumably in part because the country paid off enormous debts from the Napoleonic wars and World War II. That being said, the numbers for the U.K. are worrisome, which hopefully will lead to a renewed commitment to spending restraint by Boris Johnson’s government.

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I wrote recently how government regulation and bureaucratic inefficiency are hindering an effective response to coronavirus in the United States.

And I also wrote yesterday about one foolish response from Washington to the crisis.

But what about developments in other nations? Are there lessons to be learned?

Henry Olsen, writing in the Washington Post, contemplates how Italy is very vulnerable because of stagnation, dependency, and debt.

Italy…has essentially shuttered its economy to fight its enormous health crisis. …Effectively, millions of Italians are out of work. These actions would shock any economy. But Italy’s economy is already weak, and has been for decades. Its gross domestic product has barely grown over the past 20 years. Its unemployment rate, at 9.8 percent, is one of the highest in Europe. Worse still, Italy is one of the most heavily indebted nations in the world. Government debt stood at 138 percent of GDP before this crisis hit… Italy’s economic crisis will ultimately put serious pressure on the euro. …If Italy’s economic hit weakens its banks sufficiently, the European Central Bank could be forced to step in with a large bailout. …Italians would likely face years of depression and stagnation… Italy’s economic lockdown is sending clear warning signs that a fiscal meltdown is coming.

Henry also speculates in the column that Italy’s current left-populist government will be replaced by a right-populist government. Furthermore, he thinks this could lead to the country abandoning the euro (the currency shared by many European nations) and going back to a national currency.

For what it’s worth, that would be a mistake.

A major problem in Italy is that populist politicians want people to believe the fairy tale that it’s possible to consume more than you produce.

That currently happens in Italy when politicians borrow money and spend it.

If the country gets rid of the euro and goes back to the lira, politicians will also be able to print money and spend it.

In other words, Italy’s populist politicians would have another way of undermining prosperity.

(I’m not a big fan of the European Central Bank’s easy-money policies, but it’s always possible to go from bad to worse.)

Meanwhile, Joseph Sternberg of the Wall Street Journal opines about lessons that can be learned from Europe about government-run healthcare.

Scientists around the world have worked overtime to get a handle on Covid-19, yet one great unknown remains. We still don’t know for sure whether this is only a medical crisis, or also a medical system crisis. …Doctors in Italy know what to do to treat severe cases, such as using ventilators in intensive-care units. But hospitals lack the beds and equipment for the influx of patients and Italy doesn’t have enough doctors even to make the attempt. Ill patients languish in hospital corridors for want of beds, recovering patients are rushed out the door as quickly as possible, and exhausted (and sometimes sick) doctors and nurses can’t even muster the energy to throw up their hands in despair. …U.K. policy makers understand what such analyses portend—because underinvestment in Britain’s creaking health-care system is even worse. …As a result, British authorities…are desperate to hold off on a mass outbreak until the socialized National Health Service has recovered from its chronic winter crisis. …the NHS…already falls to pieces every year with the normal ebb and flow of cold-weather ailments. Each winter crisis becomes a bit more acute, and this year was no exception. As of December, only 80% of emergency-room patients were treated within four hours of arrival, down from 84% in the depths of the previous two winters.

Interestingly, not all European nations are created equal.

…the U.K. and Italy are significantly more dependent on direct government financing of health-care than is France or Germany. Government accounted for 79% of total health-care spending in the U.K. in 2017, according to Eurostat, and 74% in Italy. Germany and France both rely on compulsory insurance schemes with varying degrees of subsidy and government meddling, but outright government expenditure amounts to only 6% of total health spending in Germany and 5% in France. …politicians already have made decisions that may seal a country’s coronavirus fate…the important choices may have already come in the guise of technocratic health spending and investment decisions made largely out of public view over many years. How lucky do Europeans feel?

The moral of the story is that coronavirus vulnerability may be worse in nations where government has the most control over healthcare.

Since the disease is a “black swan” (i.e., an unexpected big event), we should be cautious about drawing too many policy conclusions. After all, any nation with a severe coronavirus outbreak is going to face major problems.

That being said, it may be worth noting that Germany and France have an approach that’s more akin to Obamacare while the system in Italy and the United Kingdom is more akin to Medicare for All.

Either policy is greatly inferior to the free market, but it does raise the question of whether it’s a good idea to jump from a frying pan into a fire.

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I’ve been in Rome the past few days with my charming and beautiful daughter.

We visited the usual tourists spots, including the Coliseum and other remnants of Ancient Rome.

And I couldn’t help but wonder how such a powerful empire could collapse, driving people from relative prosperity to the economic misery of the Dark Ages.

I briefly addressed this topic in early 2016, but only to make a point about the (myriad) problems of modern Italy.

So let’s take a closer look at this issue and learn how excessive government helped bring down the Roman Empire.

The Foundation for Economic Education has an excerpt of Will Durant’s book, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 3: Caesar and Christ. And here are my excerpts from that article.

Diocletian, with his aides, faced the problems of economic decay. …he substituted a managed economy for the law of supply and demand. …He distributed food to the poor at half the market price or free, and undertook extensive public works to appease the unemployed. To ensure the supply of necessaries for the cities and the armies, he brought many branches of industry under complete state control, beginning with the import of grain… The state had long since owned most quarries, salt deposits, and mines; now it forbade the export of salt, iron, gold, wine, grain, or oil from Italy, and strictly regulated the importation of these articles. …the majority of industrial establishments and guilds in Italy were brought under the control of the corporate state. Butchers, bakers, masons, builders, glass-blowers, ironworkers, engravers, were ruled by detailed governmental regulations. …Such a system could not work without price control. In 301, Diocletian and his colleagues issued an Edictum de pretiis, dictating maximum legal prices or wages for all important articles or services in the Empire. …The weakness of this managed economy lay in its administrative cost. The required bureaucracy was so extensive that Lactantius, doubtless with political license, estimated it at half the population. …To support the bureaucracy, the court, the army, the building program, and the dole, taxation rose to unprecedented peaks of ubiquitous continuity. …Since every taxpayer sought to evade taxes, the state organized a special force of revenue police to examine every man’s property and income; torture was used upon wives, children, and slaves to make them reveal the hidden wealth or earnings of the household.

Torture?!? Let’s not give the IRS any new ideas.

Here’s an excerpt from FEE’s excerpt from Human Action, the classic tome by Ludwig von Mises.

…the Roman Empire in the second century, the age of the Antonines, the “good” emperors, had reached a high stage of the social division of labor and of interregional commerce. …What brought about the decline of the empire and the decay of its civilization was the disintegration of this economic interconnectedness… The policy of the annona, which was tantamount to a nationalization or municipalization of the grain trade…its effects were rather unsatisfactory. Grain was scarce in the urban agglomerations, and the agriculturists complained about the unremunerativeness of grain growing. …The interference of the authorities upset the adjustment of supply to the rising demand. …in the political troubles of the third and fourth centuries the emperors resorted to currency debasement. With the system of maximum prices the practice of debasement completely paralyzed both the production and the marketing of the vital foodstuffs and disintegrated society’s economic organization. …The Roman Empire crumbled to dust because it lacked the spirit of liberalism and free enterprise. The policy of interventionism and its political corollary, the Führer principle, decomposed the mighty empire as they will by necessity always disintegrate and destroy any social entity.

Just in case it’s not clear, Mises was referring to “classical liberalism.”

In a column for FEE, Professor Richard Ebeling explores the impact of government intervention in Rome.

The Roman government also set price controls on wheat. In the fourth century, B.C., the Roman government would buy grain during periods of shortages and sell it at a price fixed far below the market price. In 58 B.C., this was improved upon; the government gave grain away to the citizens of Rome at a zero price, that is, for free. The result was inevitable: farmers left the land… In 45 B.C., Julius Caesar discovered that almost one-third of the Roman citizenry was receiving their grain supply for free from the State. To deal with the financial cost of these supplies of wheat, the Roman government resorted to debasement of the currency, that is, inflation. Pricing-fixing of grain, shortages of supply, rising budgetary problems for the Roman government, monetary debasement and resulting worsening price inflation were a continual occurrence through long periods of Roman history. …In the Greek parts of the Roman Empire, archeologists have found the price tables listing the government-mandated prices. They list over 1,000 individual prices and wages set by the law and what the permitted price and wage was to be for each of the commodities, goods, and labor services.

Sounds like Elizabeth Warren’s platform.

But not all Roman leaders were economic illiterates. Writing for FEE, Marc Hyden has a reasonably favorable assessment of Antoninus Pius.

…most Roman emperors, at least at certain points in their lives, were little more than murderous megalomaniacs too willing to spark wars for their own benefit and chip away at the Romans’ liberties. This is true even for the most revered emperors, including Augustus, Hadrian, and Constantine. …one emperor finally came to mind: Antoninus Pius. While imperfect, for the most part, Antoninus ruled with prudence, restraint, and moderation. He is known as one of the so-called “five good emperors,”… Antoninus often seemed to eschew the grandeur of his office. He sold off imperial lands, reduced or eliminated superfluous salaries, and lived in his own villas rather than imperial estates. …he believed he simply could not justify draining the public treasury for travel. …He conscientiously guarded the public treasury while simultaneously reducing confiscations and his subjects’ tax burden. …He so prudently managed the state’s finances that when he died, he left the public treasury with a massive surplus—a rarity in old Rome. Part of this surplus appears to be related to Antoninus’ aversion to vanity projects and unnecessary wars. …His life is perhaps best summed up by his successor, Marcus Aurelius, who described Antoninus as a grounded, introspective, and humble man who was respectful of others’ liberties.

I guess we can say that Antoninus was the Grover Cleveland of the Roman Empire.

By the way, there is an alternative left-of-center explanation of Rome’s decline. Professor Mark Koyama of George Mason University summarizes that viewpoint.

In the Rise of Western Christendom, [Peter] Brown summarizes the new wisdom on the transition from late antiquity to the early middle ages. …Long distance trade contracted. Cities shrank and emptied out. The division of labor became less complex. Many professions common in the Roman world disappeared. All of this is relatively uncontroversial. At issue is what caused this decline? …according to Brown: “The fault lay with the weakening of the late Roman state. The state had been built up to an unparalleled level in order to survive the crisis of the third century. The “downsizing” of this state, in the course of of the fifth century, destroyed the “command economy” on which the provinces had become dependent.” …Brown contends that the Roman state was the engine of economic growth of late antiquity. …Brown argues that these high taxes were in fact the source of economic dynamism: “High taxation did not ruin the populations of the empire. Rather, high tax demands primed the pump for a century of hectic economic growth.”

He then explains why he is not impressed with that analysis.

This, then, is Brown’s explanation for the decline of the Roman economy. It turns out that when examined one by one each one of these premises is either on shaky grounds factually, economically, or requires us to make implausible assumptions. …For conventional Keynesians, the multiplier on government spending boosts short-run aggregate demand, but aggregate demand is not the binding constraint on long-run growth, supply is; growth depends on the productive capacity of the economy. If anything, the impact of the Roman tax state on the productive capacity of the economy was more likely to be negative rather than positive. Resources were diverted from the private hands of peasants, merchants and small landowners and diverted into the hands of soldiers and officeholders. …Brown’s argument requires that at the margin, peasants preferred additional leisure to the wide array of affordable manufactured consumers goods that were on offer in markets and shops across the Roman empire. This is not impossible. But it is at odds with what we know about peasant behavior in other commercial societies such as early modern Europe. …Brown’s argument requires us to believe that if, for instance, the Roman state stopped spending on armor and weapons in a city, then the blacksmith and armor manufacturer would go out of business. This is a classic case of focusing on the seen and missing the unseen. It neglects the fact that lower taxes would give individuals more disposable income and they would likely spend some of this income to purchase amphora, pottery, textiles or other urban goods that we know the Roman economy was capable of producing. The blacksmith might switch to producing pots and pans rather than swords but he would not then go out of business.

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), I side with Koyama over Brown.

Yes, there is ample evidence that some degree of government is important for a thriving and successful economy.

  • A national defense protects a country and gives people confidence to accumulate capital.
  • A justice system protects against criminal activity.
  • A legal system provides a mechanism of resolving disputes.

Rome prospered and grew when the degree of economic intervention was tolerable.

Over time, though, Roman officials went overboard. There was too much intervention, too much dependency, and too much taxation.

The moral of the story (as we see in modern nations such as Venezuela, Greece, and Argentina) is that nations can move in the wrong direction.

The great challenge, of course, is figuring out a way to confine government so it focuses solely on core “public goods.”

America’s Founders produced such a system, but sadly the courts have failed to protect and preserve the Constitution’s limits on the powers of the central government.

September 14, 2019 Addendum: In response to some of the very good comments below, I fully agree that many other factors contributed to Rome’s decline. This columns focuses solely on the role of economic policy.

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I’ve warned many times that Italy is the next Greece.

Simply stated, there’s a perfect storm of bad news. Government is far too big, debt is too high, and the economy is too sclerotic.

I’ve always assumed that the country would suffer a full-blown fiscal crisis when the next recession occurs. At that point, tax receipts will fall because of the weak economy and investors will realize that the nation no longer is able to pay its bills.

But it may happen even sooner thanks to a spat between Italy’s left-populist government and the apparatchiks at the European Commission.

Here’s what you need to know. There are (poorly designed) European budget rules, known as the Maastricht Criteria, that supposedly require that nations limit deficits to 3 percent of GDP and debt to 60 percent of GDP.

With cumulative red ink totaling more than 130 percent of GDP, Italy obviously fails the latter requirement. And this means the bureaucrats at the European Commission can veto a budget that doesn’t strive to lower debt levels.

At least that’s the theory.

In reality, the European Commission doesn’t have much direct enforcement power. So if the Italian government tells the bureaucrats in Brussels to go jump in a lake, you wind up with a standoff. As the New York Times reports, that’s exactly what’s happened.

In what is becoming a dangerous game of chicken for the global economy, Italy’s populist government refused to budge on Tuesday after the European Union for the first time sent back a member state’s proposed budget because it violated the bloc’s fiscal laws and posed unacceptable risks. …the commission rejected the plan, saying that it included irresponsible deficit levels that would “suffocate” Italy, the third-largest economy in the eurozone. Investors fear that the collapse of the Italian economy under its enormous debt could sink the entire eurozone and hasten a global economic crisis unseen since 2008, or worse. But Italy’s populists are not scared. They have repeatedly compared their budget, fat with unemployment welfare, pension increases and other benefits, to the New Deal measures of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Repeating the failures of the New Deal?!? That doesn’t sound like a smart plan.

That seems well understood, at least outside of Italy.

The question for Italy, and all of Europe, is how far Italy’s government is willing to go. Will it be forced into submission by the gravity of economic reality? Or will Italian leaders convince their voters that the country’s financial health is worth risking in order to blow up a political and economic establishment that they say is stripping Italians of their sovereignty? And Brussels must decide how strict it will be. …the major pressure on Italy’s budget has come from outside Italy. Fitch Ratings issued a negative evaluation of the budget, and Moody’s dropped its rating for Italian bonds to one level above “junk” last week.

So now that Brussels has rejected the Italian budget plan, where do things go from here?

According to CNBC, the European Commission will launch an “Excessive Deficit Procedure” against Italy.

…a three-week negotiation period follows in which a potential agreement could be found on how to lower the deficit (essentially, Italy would have to re-submit an amended draft budget). If that’s not reached, punitive action could be taken against Italy. Lorenzo Codogno, founder and chief economist at LC Macro Advisors, told CNBC…“it’s very likely that the Commission will, without making a big fuss, will move towards making an ‘Excessive Deficit Procedure’…to put additional pressure on Italy…” Although it has the power to sanction governments whose budgets don’t comply with the EU’s fiscal rules (and has threatened to do so in the past), it has stopped short of issuing fines to other member states before. …launching one could increase the already significant antipathy between Brussels and a vociferously euroskeptic government in Italy. Against a backdrop of Brexit and rising populism, the Commission could be wary of antagonizing Italy, the third largest euro zone economy. It could also be wary of financial market nerves surrounding Italy from spreading to its neighbors… Financial markets continue to be rattled over Italy’s political plans. …This essentially means that investors grew more cautious over lending money to the Italian government.

For those who read carefully, you probably noticed that the European Commission doesn’t have any real power. As such, there’s no reason to think this standoff will end.

The populists in Rome almost certainly will move forward with their profligate budget. Bureaucrats in Brussels will complain, but to no avail.

Since I’m a nice guy, I’m going to give the bureaucrats in Brussels a much better approach. Here’s the three-sentence announcement they should make.

  1. The European Commission recognizes that it was a mistake to centralize power in Brussels and henceforth will play no role is overseeing fiscal policy in member nations.
  2. The European Commission (and, more importantly, the European Central Bank) henceforth will have a no-bailout policy for national governments, or for those who lend to national governments.
  3. The European Commission henceforth advises investors to be appropriately prudent when deciding whether to lend money to any government, including the Italian government.

From an economic perspective, this is a far superior approach, mostly because it begins to unwind the “moral hazard“that undermines sound financial decision making in Europe.

To elaborate, investors can be tempted to make unwise choices if they think potential losses can be shifted to taxpayers. They see what happened with the various bailouts in Greece and that tells them it’s probably okay to continue lending money to Italy. To be sure, investors aren’t totally blind. They know there’s some risk, so the Italian government has to promise higher interest payments

But it’s highly likely that the Italian government would have to pay even higher rates if investors were convinced there would be no bailouts. Incidentally that would be a very good outcome since it would make it more costly for Italy’s politicians to continue over-spending.

In other words, a win-win situation, with less debt and more prudence (and maybe even a smaller burden of government!).

My advice seems so sensible that you’re probably wondering if there’s a catch.

There is, sort of.

When I talk to policy makers, they generally agree with everything I say, but then say my advice is impractical because Italy’s debt is so massive. They fret that a default would wipe out Italy’s banks (which imprudently have bought lots of government debt), and might even cause massive problems for banks in other nations (which, as was the case with Greece, also have foolishly purchased lots of Italian government debt).

And if banks are collapsing, that could produce major macroeconomic damage and even lead/force some nations to abandon the euro and go back to their old national currencies.

For all intents and purposes, the Greek bailout was a bank bailout. And the same would be true for an Italian bailout.

In any event, Europeans fear that bursting the “debt bubble” would be potentially catastrophic. Better to somehow browbeat the Italian government in hopes that somehow the air can slowly be released from the bubble.

With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why the bureaucrats in Brussels are pursuing their current approach.

So where do we stand?

  • In an ideal world, the problem will be solved because the Italian government decides to abandon its big-spending agenda and instead caps the growth of spending (as I recommended when speaking in Milan way back in 2011).
  • In an imperfect world, the problem is mitigated (or at least postponed) because the European Commission successfully pressures the Italian government to curtail its profligacy.
  • In the real world, though, I have zero faith in the first option and very little hope for the second option. Consider, for instance, the mess in Greece. For all intents and purposes, the European Commission took control of that nation’s fiscal policy almost 10 years ago. The results have not been pretty.

So this brings me back to my three-sentence prescription. Yes, it almost certainly would be messy. But it’s better to let the air out of bubbles sooner rather than later.

P.S. The so-called Basel Rules contribute to the mess in Europe by directing banks to invest in supposedly safe government debt.

P.P.S. If the European Union is going to impose fiscal rules on member nations, the Maastricht criteria should be jettisoned and replaced with a Swiss-style spending cap.

P.P.P.S. Some of the people in Sardinia have the right approach. They want to secede from Italy and become part of Switzerland. The Sicilians, by contrast, have the wrong mentality.

P.P.P.P.S. Italy is very, very, very well represented in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

P.P.P.P.P.S. You’ll think I’m joking, but a columnist for the New York Times actually argued the United States should be more like Italy.

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As a general rule, we worry too much about deficits and debt. Yes, red ink matters, but we should pay more attention to variables such as the overall burden of government spending and the structure of the tax system.

That being said, Greece shows that a nation can experience a crisis if investors no longer trust that a government is capable of “servicing” its debt (i.e., paying interest and principal to people and institutions that hold government bonds).

This doesn’t change the fact that Greece’s main fiscal problem is too much spending. It simply shows that it’s also important to recognize the side-effects of too much spending (if you have a brain tumor, that’s your main problem, even if crippling headaches are a side-effect of the tumor).

Anyhow, it’s quite likely that Italy will be the next nation to travel down this path.

This in in part because the Italian economy is moribund, as noted by the Wall Street Journal.

Italy’s national elections…featured populist promises of largess but neglected what economists have long said is the real Italian disease: The country has forgotten how to grow. …The Italian economy contracted deeply in Europe’s debt crisis earlier this decade. A belated recovery now under way yielded 1.5% growth in 2017—a full percentage point less than the eurozone as a whole and not enough to dispel Italians’ pervasive sense of national decline. Many European policy makers view Italy’s stasis as the likeliest cause of a future eurozone crisis.

Why would Italy be the cause of a future crisis?

For the simple reason that it is only the 4th-largest economy in Europe, but this chart from the Financial Times shows it has the most nominal debt.

So what’s the solution?

The obvious answer is to dramatically reduce the burden of government.

Interestingly, even the International Monetary Fund put forth a half-decent proposal based on revenue-neutral tax reform and modest spending restraint.

The scenario modeled assumes a permanent fiscal consolidation of about 2 percent of GDP (in the structural primary balance) over four years…, supported by a pro-growth mix of revenue and expenditure reforms… Two types of growth-friendly revenue and spending measures are considered along the envisaged fiscal consolidation path: shifting taxation from direct to indirect taxes, and lowering expenditure and shifting its composition from transfers to investment. On the revenue side, a lower labor tax wedge (1.5 percent of GDP) is offset by higher VAT collections (1 percent of GDP) and introducing a modern property tax (0.5 percent of GDP). On the expenditure side, spending on public consumption is lowered by 1.25 percent of GDP, while productive public investment spending is increased by 0.5 percent of GDP. The remaining portion of the fiscal consolidation, 1.25 percent of GDP, is implemented via reduced social transfers.

Not overly bold, to be sure, but I suppose I should be delighted that the IMF didn’t follow its usual approach and recommend big tax increases.

So are Italians ready to take my good advice, or even the so-so advice of the IMF?

Nope. They just had an election and the result is a government that wants more red ink.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page is not impressed by the economic agenda of Italy’s putative new government.

Five-Star wants expansive welfare payments for poor Italians, revenues to pay for it not included. Italy’s public debt to GDP, at 132%, is already second-highest in the eurozone behind Greece. Poor Italians need more economic growth to generate job opportunities, not public handouts that discourage work. The League’s promise of a pro-growth 15% flat tax is a far better idea, especially in a country where tax avoidance is rife. The two parties would also reverse the 2011 Monti government pension reforms, which raised the retirement age and moved Italy toward a contribution-based benefit system. …Recent labor-market reforms may also be on the block.

Simply stated, Italy elected free-lunch politicians who promised big tax cuts and big spending increases. I like the first part of that lunch, but the overall meal doesn’t add up in a nation that has a very high debt level.

And I don’t think the government has a very sensible plan to make the numbers work.

…problematic for the rest of Europe are the two parties’ demand for an exemption from the European Union’s 3% GDP cap on annual budget deficits. …the two parties want the European Central Bank to cancel some €250 billion in Italian debt.

Demond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute suggests this will lead to a fiscal crisis because of two factors. First, the economy is weak.

Anyone who thought that the Eurozone debt crisis was resolved has not been paying attention to economic and political developments in Italy…the recent Italian parliamentary election…saw a surge in support for populist political parties not known for their commitment to economic orthodoxy or to real economic reform. …To say that the Italian economy is in a very poor state would be a gross understatement. Over the past decade, Italy has managed to experience a triple-dip economic recession that has left the level of its economy today 5 percent below its pre-2008 peak. Meanwhile, Italy’s current unemployment level is around double that of its northern neighbors, while its youth unemployment continues to exceed 25 percent. …the country’s public debt to GDP ratio continued to rise to 133 percent, making the country the most indebted country in the Eurozone after Greece. …its banking system remains clogged with non-performing loans that still amount to 15 percent of its balance sheet…

Second, existing debt is high.

…having the world’s third-largest government bond market after Japan and the United States, with $2.5 trillion in bonds outstanding, Italy is simply too large a country for even Germany to save. …global policymakers…, it would seem not too early for them to start making contingency plans for a full blown Italian economic crisis.

Since he writes on issues I care about, I always enjoy reading Lachman’s work. Though I don’t always agree with his analysis.

Why, for instance, does he think an Italian fiscal crisis threatens the European currency?

…the Italian economy is far too large an economy to fail if the Euro is to survive in anything like its present form.

Would the dollar be threatened if (when?) Illinois goes bankrupt?

But let’s not get sidetracked.3

To give you an idea of the fairy-tale thinking of Italian politicians, I’ll close with this chart from L’Osservatorio on the fiscal impact of the government’s agenda. It’s in Italian, but all you need to know is that the promised tax cuts and spending increases are on the left side and the compensating savings (what we would call “pay-fors”) are on the right side.

Wow, makes me wonder if Italy has passed the point of no return.

By the way, Italy may be the next domino, but it’s not the only European nation with fiscal problems.

P.S. No wonder some people want Sardinia to secede from Italy and become part of “sensible” Switzerland.

P.P.S. Some leftists genuinely think the United States should emulate Italy.

P.P.P.S. As a fan of spending caps, I can’t resist pointing out that anti-deficit rules in Europe have not stopped politicians from expanding government.

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To put it mildly, Italy’s economy is moribund. There’s been almost no growth for the entire 21st century.

Bad government policy deserves much of the blame.

According to Economic Freedom of the World, Italy is ranked only 54th, the worst score in Western Europe other than Greece. The score for fiscal policy is abysmal and regulatory policy and rule of law are also problem areas.

Moreover, thanks to decades of excessive government spending, the nation also has very high levels of public debt. Over the last few years, it has received official and unofficial bailouts from the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, and Italy is considered at high risk for a budgetary meltdown when another recession occurs.

And let’s not forget that the country faces a demographic death spiral.

You don’t have to believe me (though you should).

Others have reached similar conclusions. Here are excerpts from some VoxEU research.

Italy will increasingly need to rely on growth fundamentals to sustain its public debt. Unfortunately, the fundamentals do not look good. Not only was Italy severely battered by Europe’s double dip recession (its GDP is lower today than it was in 2005) but when we look at the growth of labour productivity…, we can see that Italy has been stagnating since the mid-90s. …At the end of 2016, Italy’s central government debt was the third-largest in the world…, at $2.3 trillion. …a debt crisis in Italy could trigger a global financial catastrophe, and could very possibly lead to the disintegration of the Eurozone. To avoid such a scenario, Italy must revive growth…a tentative policy prescription is for Italy, to remove those institutional barriers (such as corruption, judicial inefficiency and government interference in the financial sector) that stifle merit and contribute to cronyism.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute paints a grim picture.

Italy’s economic performance since the Euro’s 1999 launch has been appalling. …an over-indebted Italian economy needs a coherent and reform-minded government to get the country quickly onto a higher economic growth path. …since 2000, German per capita income has increased by around 20 percent, that in Italy has actually declined by 5 percent. Talk about two lost economic decades for the country. …if Italy is to get itself onto a higher economic growth path, it has to find ways improve the country’s labor market productivity… It has to do so through major economic reforms, especially to its very rigid labor market…being the Eurozone’s third largest economy, Italy is simply too big to fail for the Euro to survive in its present form. However, it is also said that being roughly ten times the size of the Greek economy, a troubled Italian economy would be too big for Germany to save.

Even the IMF thinks pro-market reforms are needed.

Average Italians still earn less than two decades ago. Their take-home pay took a dip during the crisis and has still not yet caught up with the growth in key euro area countries. …a key question for policymakers is how to enhance incomes and productivity… In the decade before the global financial crisis, Italy’s spending grew faster than its income, in important part because of increases in pensions. …The tax burden is heavy…a package of high-quality measures on the spending and revenue side the country could balance the need to support growth on the one hand with the imperative of reducing debt on the other. Such a package includes…lower pension spending that is the second highest in the euro area; and lower tax rates on labor, and bringing more enterprises and persons into the tax net. …together with reforms of wage bargaining and others outlined above, can raise Italian incomes by over 10 percent, create jobs, improve competitiveness, and substantially lower public debt.

There’s a chance, however, that all this bad news may pave the way for good news. There are elections in early March and Silvio Berlusconi, considered a potential frontrunner to be the next Prime Minister, has proposed a flat tax.

Bloomberg has some of the details.

A flat tax for all and 2 million new jobs are among the top priorities in the draft program of former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party… The program aims to relaunch the euro region’s third-biggest economy…and recoup the ground lost in the double-dip, record-long recession of the 2008-2013 period. …Forza Italia’s plan doesn’t cite a level for the planned flat income tax for individuals, Berlusconi has said in recent television interviews it should be 23 percent or even below that. The written draft plan says a flat tax would also apply to companies. The program pursues the balanced budget of the Italian state and calls public debt below 100 percent of GDP a “feasible” goal. It is currently above 130 percent.

Wow. As a matter of principle, I think a 23-percent rate is too high.

But compared to Italy’s current tax regime, 23 percent will be like a Mediterranean version of Hong Kong.

So can this happen? I’m not holding my breath.

The budget numbers will be the biggest obstacle to tax reform. The official number crunchers, both inside the Italian government and at pro-tax bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, will fret about the potential for revenue losses.

In part, those concerns are overblown. The high tax rates of the current system have hindered economic vitality and helped to produce very high levels of evasion. If a simple, low-rate flat tax is adopted, two things will happen.

  • There will be more revenue than expected because of better economic performance.
  • There will be more revenue than expected because of a smaller underground economy.

These things are especially likely in Italy, where dodging tax authorities is a national tradition.

That being said, “more revenue than expected” is not the same as “more revenue.” The Laffer Curve simply says that good policy produced revenue feedback, not that tax cuts always pay for themselves (that only happens in rare circumstances).

So if Italy wants tax reform, it will also need spending reform. As I noted when commenting on tax reform in Belgium, you can’t have a bloated public sector and a decent tax system.

Fortunately, that shouldn’t be too difficult. I pointed out way back in 2011 that some modest fiscal restraint could quickly pay big dividends for the nation.

But can a populist-minded Berlusconi (assuming he even wins) deliver? Based on his past record, I’m not optimistic.

Though I’ll close on a hopeful note. Berlusconi and Trump are often linked because of their wealth, their celebrity, and their controversial lives. Well, I wasn’t overly optimistic that Trump was going to deliver on his proposal for a big reduction in the corporate tax rate.

Yet it happened. Not quite the 15 percent rate he wanted, but 21 percent was a huge improvement.

Could Berlusconi – notwithstanding previous failures to reform bad policies – also usher in a pro-growth tax code?

To be honest, I have no idea. We don’t know if he is serious. And, even if his intentions are good, Italy’s parliamentary system is different for America’s separation-of-powers systems and his hands might be tied by partners in a coalition government. Though I’m encouraged by the fact that occasional bits of good policy are possible in that nation.

And let’s keep in mind that there’s another populist party that could win the election And its agenda, as reported by Bloomberg, includes reckless ideas like a “basic income.”

…economic malaise is increasingly common across Italy, where unemployment tops 11 percent and the number of people living at or below the poverty line has nearly tripled since 2006, to 4.7 million last year, or almost 8 percent of the population… “Poverty will be center stage in the campaign,” says Giorgio Freddi, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Bologna. …Five Star is a fast-growing group fueled by anger at the old political class. …a €500 ($590) monthly subsidy to the disadvantaged…is a key plank in Five Star’s national platform, and the group’s leaders have promised to quickly implement such a program if they take power. Beppe Grillo, the former television comedian who co-founded the party, says fighting poverty should be a top priority. A basic income can “give people back their dignity,”… The Five Star program echoes universal basic income schemes being considered around the world. …Five Star says the plan would cost €17 billion a year, funded in part by…tax hikes on banks, insurance companies, and gambling.

Ugh. Basic income is a very troubling idea.

I’ve already speculated about whether Italy has “passed the point of no return.” If the Five Star Movement wins the election and makes government even bigger, I think I’ll have an answer to that question.

Which helps to explain why I wrote that Sardinians should secede and become part of Switzerland (where a basic income scheme was overwhelmingly rejected).

In conclusion, I suppose I should point out that a flat tax would be very beneficial for Italy’s economy, but other market-friendly reforms are just as important.

P.S. Some people, such as Eduardo Porter in the New York Times, actually argue that the United States should be more like Italy. I’m not kidding.

P.P.S. When asked about my favorite anecdote about Italian government, I’m torn. Was it when a supposedly technocratic government appointed the wrong man to a position that shouldn’t even exist? Or was it when a small town almost shut down because so many bureaucrats were arrested for fraud?

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I’m rather pessimistic about Italy.

Simply stated, it’s economy is moribund. If you peruse the OECD’s economic database, you’ll see that both inflation-adjusted GDP and inflation-adjusted private consumption expenditure (in some ways a more accurate measure of actual quality of life) have grown by an average of just slightly over one percent annually this century.

And even though Italy’s population growth has been anemic, there are more people. And when you add a larger population to the equation, you get per-capita changes in output and living standards that are even less impressive.

But not everyone shares my dour outlook. I recently exchanged views with someone who said that Italy hasn’t increased the burden of government in recent years.

And that person is right. Sort of.

Here’s a chart showing Italy’s score from Economic Freedom of the World since the start of the 21st century. As you can see, it’s been remarkably stable.

But I have two reasons why I think policy stability is a recipe for economic decline.

First, you don’t win a race by standing still if others are moving forward. If you look closely at the above chart, you will see that Italy used to be ranked #36 in the world for economic freedom but it now ranks #69. In other words, Italy’s absolute level of economic freedom barely changed over the period, but its relative position declined significantly because other nations engaged in reforms and leapfrogged Italy in the rankings.

Second, Italy is in the middle of dramatic demographic changes that will have a huge impact on fiscal policy. People are living longer and having fewer children, but Italy’s welfare state was set up on the assumption that there would be lots of working-age taxpayers to finance old-age beneficiaries. In other words, policy stability will lead to fiscal crisis thanks to changes in the composition of the population. Think Greece, but on a bigger scale.

And when I refer to Greece on a bigger scale, I’m thinking another fiscal crisis.

Demond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute is pessimistic about Italy and warns that high levels of red ink could cause a big mess.

We’ve got an Italian economy that is categorized by extremely high public debt. Their public debt level is now something like 132% of GDP, they’ve got a banking system that is bust, that banks have something like 18% of their loans non-performing, that is a huge amount, the economy is completely sclerotic, that the level of Italian GDP today is pretty much the same as it was some fifteen years ago. There’s been practically no growth, declining living standards… What also makes Italy very important from a global point of view is that we’re now not talking about a small country like Greece which doesn’t have that much systemic significance. We’re talking about the third largest country in the Eurozone. We’re talking about a country that has the world’s third largest sovereign bond market with something like two and a half trillion dollars of debt.

And don’t forget that these grim fiscal numbers probably mean even higher taxes on Italy’s young workers.

But those taxpayers aren’t captives. Cristina Odone, in a column for CapX, points out that young people are getting the short end of the stick.

Gerontocracy, stifling regulations and huge unemployment have hindered Italy’s prosperity for decades now. The country hailed for its economic miracle and famed for its creative and industrious entrepreneurs (at the helm, usually, of family-run businesses such as Gucci, Prada, and Ferrero) today comes second only to Greece (among EU countries) for the size of its national debt. …Italy’s unemployed youngsters, who constitute 40 per cent of under-24-year-olds, gnash their teeth at the unfairness of national life, where fossils control the levers of power while flouting their sinecures. A quarter of under-30-year-olds classify as NEETS, young people who are not in education, work or training. Contrast this with the UK, where only one in 10 under the age of 30 is in the same position. …Labour laws continue to blight young people’s prospects. …This sclerosis risks turning Italy into the sick man of Europe.

No wonder many young Italians are migrating to nations with more economic opportunity. AFP has a story on the dour outlook in Italy.

With the country struggling to kick an economic slump, some 40,000 Italians between 18 and 34 years old set out to seek greener pastures elsewhere in 2015, according to the Migrantes Foundation. “Just talking with people (in Italy) it’s clear going away might be the only solution,” said D’Elia, 26, who has spent the last five years in London, where he currently works as a barman, and intends to stay for now despite high living costs. …most of Italy’s youths are unwilling to return — and the country is seen as offering little to attract foreign graduates. …GDP is forecast to inch up just 1.3 percent this year. The jobless rate hovers at over 11 percent, well above the euro area average of 9.3 percent. Among 15 to 24-year olds it leaps to 37 percent, compared with a European average of 18.7 percent. …Sergio Mello, who set up a start-up in Hong Kong before moving to San Francisco, said Italy “does not offer a fertile environment to develop a competitive business”. …Mello says there are other problems: “The bureaucracy wastes a lot of time”, the red tape “drives you crazy”.

Unfortunately, rather than ease up on government burdens so that young people will have some hope for the future, some Italian politicians want new mandates, new spending, new taxes, and new restrictions.

I’ve previously written about new destructive tax policies that shrink the tax base. And I’ve written about wasteful new spending schemes, like a €500 “culture bonus.”

And now there’s something equally silly on the regulatory front being proposed by politicians. Here are excerpts from a report by Heat Street on the initiative.

Italy could soon become the first Western country to offer paid “menstrual leave” to female workers. …If passed, it would mandate that companies enforce a “menstrual leave” policy and offer three paid days off each month to working women who experience painful periods. …The Italian version of Marie Claire described it as “a standard-bearer of progress and social sustainability.” But the bill also has critics, including women who fear this sort of measure could backfire and end up stigmatizing them. Writing in Donna Moderna, another women’s magazine, Lorenza Pleuteri argued that if women were granted extra paid leave, employers would be even more reluctant to hire women, in a country where women already struggle to integrate the workforce. …Miriam Goi, a feminist writer, …fears that rather than breaking taboos about women’s menstrual cycle, the measure could end up perpetuating the idea that women are more emotional than men and require special treatment.

It’s unclear if this policy was actually enacted, but it’s a bad sign that it was even considered. Simply stated, making workers more expensive is not a good way to encourage more job creation. Even a columnist for the New York Times acknowledged that feminist-driven economic policies backfire against women.

The bottom line is that Italy needs sweeping reductions in the burden of the public sector. Yet the nation’s politicians are more interested in expanding the size and scope of government. Perhaps now it’s easy to understand why I fear the country may have passed the tipping point. You can be in a downward spiral even if policy doesn’t change.

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