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Krugman asks: What's the matter with Italy?

by Metatone Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 04:00:34 AM EST

And it seems to me, ET is a good place to look for people with some theories of an answer:


Economics and Politics by Paul Krugman - The Conscience of a Liberal - NYTimes.com

Italy is often grouped with Greece, Spain, etc. in discussions of the euro crisis. Yet its story is quite different. There were no massive capital inflows; debt is high, but deficits aren't. The most striking thing about Italy is a remarkably dismal productivity performance since the mid to late 1990s. Here's a comparison of Italian with French productivity, as measured by output per worjer, from the Total Economy Database:

I've been reading many attempts to explain what happened; while there's a lot of interesting stuff about everything from regulation to firm size to export mix, I really don't see anything that feels like a slam dunk.

And no, it's not just a too-big welfare state -- France's welfare state is even bigger.

I'm not going to answer this; truly, I don't know. But it's important.

front-paged by afew


So - anyone have some thoughts?

One might observe some correlation between the beginning of the slump and the second Berlusconi era in government. But I'm sure there's more to say...

Display:
Italy is headed for a nasty recession it might not be able to climb out of:



I distribute. You re-distribute. He gives your hard-earned money to lazy scroungers. -- JakeS

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 01:36:44 AM EST
I see two elements happening in the end of the 90s: the euro and Berlusconi.

If I remember well, Berlusconi was elected first time in 1994 (to 1995), and came back to power in 2001.

The euro has been put into place in 1999, the banknotes coming in 2001.

A free fox in a free henhouse!

by Xavier in Paris on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 02:24:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The curiosity of the Krugman's graph is that it is about Italian productivity vs French. So in some senses the euro is not an explanation.

Of course, in other senses it is, because adjusting to the new situation worked differently in different places.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 02:57:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There are very strong differences between the industrial structure of Italy vs France.

I would like to see Italy vs Spain or vs Poland. I tried to use the website Krguman linked to, but I had'nt the time to really understand how the site works.

France has more big companies, with a trail of sub-contractors. Italy has more small industrial companies with a family structure. I doubt small companies are all able to resist to mondialisation. France industrial competitivity, despite the media noise on the subject, is generally in line with Germany's. Is it the case for Italy?

I would like to have more data on the industrial sectorization in Italy and France. 1995-2004 is also the period when the general agreement on textile was put into place. Italy industries were more involved in the textile sector than France (which lost its producers in the early 80s).

I was under the impression that Italy was more industrial than Spain, but slightly behind France for years, with a few exceptionnal successes, where design and creativity allied themsleves. I'm looking forward to Krugman's explanations to see whether I'm totally wrong.

A free fox in a free henhouse!

by Xavier in Paris on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 03:17:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think Krugman has a lot more to say - I'm hoping some of our Italian posters can bring some highlights...
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 04:35:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The first Berlusconi government was too brief to produce durable damage. It however passed a law that decriminalized false accounting. His second, third and fourth governments were mostly laissez-faire regarding economy and production. There were no government projects to stimulate the economy, an underlying belief by Tremonti that it was of no use anyway to bother since Italy could never compete internationally anyway with its industries. Primary concern was dividing up the parochial cake among the dominant economic families while the cathedral burned down, further aggravated by Tremonti's use of a mad sickle on social and state costs. A further major concern of Berlusconi's governments was to devise laws to help him beat various raps, most often of an economic nature, and let the grey and black zones of the economy thrive for reasons of consensus, (if not outright payback.) Under Berlusconi Italy lived in a dazed state of sheer greed and irresponsibility.  

A major issue these past months has been an anti-corruption law in line with EU directives. It was finally approved but is toothless and ineffectual. Corruption and tax evasion are rampant in Italy and deprive Italy of significant resources.

I of course do not know how much this is factored into the arcane formulae used by international analysists.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 04:49:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Parasitism with a positive feedback loop? But that is also the story with the USA and the financial sector.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 10:21:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think it's a question of degree and horizons of opportunity. I've thought of some parallel between the recent Italian political scene and the rise of the politicos in the States after Ulysses S. Grant. It was the same backroom scene with robber barons, rampant corruption, Pinkerton and anarchist movements. A major difference is that Italy has no frontiers or prospects, so you're only left with the robber barons and their political cronies trapped in a closed situation at the expense of the rest of society.

The American society, despite a certain amount of skullduggery, is open to new and surprising developments while Italy will likely become an old folks' home and cultural amusement park.

If by a wild hypothesis Italy could change an engrained forma mentis consolidated by berlusconismo, it could just as well re-invent itself with innovative industries. In the meantime, without investments in the future coupled with the catastrophic braindrain, it will lag further behind. It's attitude.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 04:46:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/28/more-about-italy/

Dean Baker, in correspondence, makes an interesting point about the mysterious productivity collapse in Italy -- namely, that a big chunk of it could be a statistical illusion.
[...]
Here's the story: Italy, with its combination of extensive regulations and weak enforcement, used to have a lot of "black labor"[...]But then came reforms that made keeping part-time workers, etc.,  on the books less onerous -- and the hidden labor came into the open.

Measured GDP wasn't affected, because statisticians were already making imputations for the shadow economy; so the result was a decline in measured productivity.

Follows a comparison of different ways of measuring productivity...


A free fox in a free henhouse!

by Xavier in Paris on Thu Nov 29th, 2012 at 03:27:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
According to the World Bank's World Development Indicators database Italy's labor supply began shrinking in the 90ies and dependency ratios developed accordingly.
by oliver on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 05:00:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
When the World Bank says "labor supply" you should always keep one hand on your wallet and one eye on your constitution.

But in any case the labor force (ratio) does not matter for any of the productivity metrics under discussion.

- Jake

Austerity can only be implemented in the shadow of a concentration camp.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Wed Nov 28th, 2012 at 09:45:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Damn, that's good. Might put that in my quotables.


-----
sapere aude
by Number 6 on Thu Nov 29th, 2012 at 05:19:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've been reading many attempts to explain what happened; while there's a lot of interesting stuff about everything from regulation to firm size to export mix, I really don't see anything that feels like a slam dunk.

Maybe it's a complicated mix of factors rather than a nice neat single factor explanation?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 05:34:53 AM EST
I am tryng to find data (preferably a graph) on the conversion rates of the Itlaian lira and the French franc for 1970 to the introduction of the euro. But my Google-fu is weak today.

My hypothesis is that if we see the lira dropping gradually (though probably in a discret rather then continous fashion) we are dealing with structural stuff in the Italian economy that makes it need devaluations. And then the euro is more probable as explanation since it stops devaluations. If we do not Berlusconi or other recent factors (for example: how much of italian brands are now made in China?) is more probable.

A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES in 2009!

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 06:10:39 AM EST
This is the only one I've found that goes back to 1970. Flash, unfortunately. Other currencies against dollar:
http://en.unciatrends.com/us-dollar-italian-lira-usd-itl-exchange-rate-1971-2001/
http://en.unciatrends.com/us-dollar-french-franc-usd-frf-exchange-rate-1971-2001/
Both showing a peak to 1984 or so. Then the Franc is much flatter and the Lira much steeper until the Euro is introduced. Higher inflation in Italy from 1990?

Oanda only goes back to 1990 - showing a spike from mid-1992 to 1995.

Banca d'Italia site runs too slowly from where I'm accessing, but looks promising.


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sapere aude

by Number 6 on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 07:50:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Italy has "reformed" its labor market more, so companies hire more - in France, people would rather buy machines than hire people, and squeeze more productivity out of each worker.

(Not supported by employment statistics, but in line with Serious People thoughts)

Wind power

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 06:21:38 AM EST
Looking at the productivity "decline" since about 2010, I suggest it's largely a French productivity "increase" over that period.

The quotes are important. I presume we're talking about hourly productivity rates. The conventional wisdom in France is that people (more or less magically) do in 35 hours what they used to do in 39 or 40. Because we're happier, less stressed, etc. don't you know.

Reality is a little bit different. In various lines of work, the decline in working hours is more or less ficticious : you are expected to put the hours in to get the job done, but your production will be divided by 35 hours, thereby demonstrating greater "productivity".

The other part is management pressure. If I think about my experience as a salaried worker in France over the past dozen years, it's a question of the screws being tightened gradually by employers. This is completely part of the popular culture in France, it's not just a subjective impression on my part.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 07:16:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Though I agree with your last statement on France, the Eurostat data below don't really bear it out concerning productivity since about 2010.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 08:24:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's per person employed, not per hour. So annual, I think.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 09:20:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If you just want suggestions: Demography. Italians are older.
by oliver on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 07:03:12 AM EST
Immigrants keep the companies going mostly in the north-east where the Lega Nord is very strong. Immigrants could cause a disaster were they to strike as immigrants. They also contribute substantially to social welfare. Effectively without them, Italy would be one of those Florida colonies for old folks.
by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 07:19:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Germany and France go along with the Euro area average (figures). Poland has maintained a continual rise. Spain has a tantalising rise from about 2007. Italy has definitely dropped away (see Spain-Italy lines 2005-7).

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 08:16:17 AM EST
Krugman uses the TED at The Conference Board. You can dl a .xls here with all their productivity data from 1950.

Here's an example, comparing hourly output this time, from 1970:


converted to 2011 price level with updated 2005 EKS PPPs

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 09:32:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
More from the source Krugman uses, in output per worker this time (which is what he uses):

There are no separate data for West and East Germany, so I take it they merged them, how I don't know.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 09:47:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
So maybe half the "productivity loss" Krugman sees is a reduction of average hours worked. This, it should be noted, is not a productivity loss, it's a substitution of market priced goods for non-market priced goods (chiefly leisure).

- Jake

Austerity can only be implemented in the shadow of a concentration camp.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 09:56:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Same source.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 11:24:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
(As a side note, "those shiftless Greeks" are still topping 2000.)

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sapere aude
by Number 6 on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 11:45:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This graph would tend to exculpate productivity as the villain. It is also interesting in that it shows that Germany was the only one of the three to have its downturn coincide with the financial collapse, while France and Italy started to decline about a year earlier. It is also notable that German productivity has consistently been the lowest of the three for forty years, which would be consistent with German wages having been the highest to begin with. Could the relative productivity be, in part, a reflection of inaccuracies in comparing country to country productivity?

Italian productivity stopped growing by 2001. Could it be that, with B pointing the way, Italian businessmen stopped investing in productivity earlier than the other countries and instead started squirreling their money away or 'investing' in speculative ventures and making direct foreign investments?  

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 10:57:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
all this points to the need for coherent public policy with respect to economic activity. Other countries had questionable public policy, but at least they had public policy. Italy, not really.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II
by eurogreen on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 11:14:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
An aspect of the Tremonti ideology was the collapse in research and development by all players: industry, university and state institutions. State institutions were overrun by utterly incompetent lackeys put in key positions.

Further there were- and are- no mutually productive ties between industry and universities, something that would have its positive aspects were universities receiving the minimum necessary to do research.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 11:14:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Granting validity to the assumption that Berlusconi's rise was due in no small part to a tacit arrangement with organized crime, it is interesting to note how the US has produced a similar result by allowing the financial sector to legalize what would have been crimes prior to their capture of the government. Who could have known that con men and criminals would not be the best possible stewards of the public weal?

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 11:44:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
So long as their patriotic and love the Lord.
by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 05:02:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
ARGeezer:
Italian productivity stopped growing by 2001. Could it be that, with B pointing the way, Italian businessmen stopped investing in productivity earlier than the other countries and instead started squirreling their money away or 'investing' in speculative ventures and making direct foreign investments?

yes yes yes and yes.

profits were so much higher abroad, everyone was at it. people flipping apartments in dubai, opening pizzerias in (insert country), and that's just the middle class, the big boys were into much bigger games.

figures for accidents in the workplace here in Italy just may be causal, it's 3 or 4 a day, i heard recently.

slack oversight, laissez-faire, sloppy planning, inert bureaucracies, (which seem to draw status by being so glacially turgid), the baroque legal system riddled with backlogged courts, cruel taxation for those not moneyed enough to participate in the overseas bubbles, declining services quality and the other causes named in the other comments, all have contributed to shutting Italy down as an attractive place for foreign or domestic investment.

berlusconi set the tone of 'beggar-thy-neighbour','grab-it-while-you-can-and-cover-up-damage-later' for the whole business class, a gordon gecko approach that has left severe social scars.

the gulf between north and south has yawned like the one between the rich and poor, who have very few voices to speak for them.

italians tend more conservative as the population ages, half berlu's fanclub were drooling grannies praying to the madonna to forgive him his peccadilloes and for their sons to grow up like him, owning tv stations and soccer teams.

taylorism doesn't marry that well with the national character south of bologna, only up north in lega-land does it seem like the holy grail of 'development'.

i have never seen a more depressing sight than the faces of the immigrants on the regional pendolino trains coming home from the factories around milan.

even street beggars in india had more hope in their eyes.

much of italy never got its head around the industrial revolution, remaining largely a peasant population till the 50's. the prosperity boom was bound to end, seeing its foundation...

things started going seriously south when the euro was introduced, sad to say. since the 2008-9 crash it has become progressively worse, thanks to the clueless policies of the governments served up by the right or faux-left for decades.

"We can all be prosperous but we can't all be rich." Ian Welsh

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 11:58:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Is it really sensible to look at productivity without looking at economic growth?
by oliver on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 04:30:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And Gini coefficient.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 07:08:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It is not sensible to look at productivity without looking at distribution, but productivity does have interest and value independently of growth in production or turnover.

- Jake

Austerity can only be implemented in the shadow of a concentration camp.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Wed Nov 28th, 2012 at 09:47:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A question that has to be raised is the usefulness of these almighty productivity statistics.

They are obtained by dividing GDP by the number of people in employment. This includes part-time workers. The proportion of part-time in total employment differs from country to country. The more "concentrated" the labour force is in fulltime jobs, the higher the output per person employed will appear...

Dividing GDP by total hours worked is still a pretty crude method, but it is at least more precise than "per person employed". If Krugman had done a chart based on that (from the same data source), it would have looked like this:

Which wouldn't have had the same effect...

(What has to be factored in is the relative-to-Italy fall in annual hours worked in France, see annual hours chart below, without corresponding fall in GDP).

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Nov 28th, 2012 at 07:25:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And while we're at it, let's remember that GDP is a piece of shit to start with.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Nov 28th, 2012 at 07:30:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Obviously.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Nov 28th, 2012 at 07:36:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
ie every time we come up against notions such as output, productivity, we're dealing with crude calculations based on a lousy metric.

The stats obtained can be used for comparisons within a time series, though. Insofar as Italy does seem to have deviated (!OMG!) over the last decade, I'd take the Berlusconi, corruption, black market explanation over any others. In other words the national accounts are fucked.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Nov 28th, 2012 at 07:53:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Has the number of foremen and middle managers fallen in France compared to Italy? I have seen anecdotal complaints from people who have been managers in Italian subsidiaries that Italian workers are too unindependent and that production requires manager's constant presence and orders.
by Jute on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 08:37:48 AM EST
Via Krugman's comment field:

A botched Berlusconi decade | Daniel Gros, VoxEU | Commentary | Business Spectator

So what could explain the worsening of growth?

There is only one set of indicators on which the performance of Italy has clearly declined: the governance of the country. This can be measured by the Worldwide Governance Indicators from the World Bank. The three most important indicators for the economy are: the rule of law; government effectiveness in general; and control of corruption.

Italy's performance on all three indicators has deteriorated dramatically over the last decade.



A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES in 2009!
by A swedish kind of death on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 11:55:50 AM EST
Excellent post by Daniel Gros. He says investment isn't the culprit, neither is the sempiternal "lack of structural reforms".

Here's the chart he posts on governance:


Source: WGI 2011, World Bank

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 12:17:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A botched Berlusconi decade | Daniel Gros, VoxEU | Commentary | Business Spectator

Moreover, by all these measures* Italy now ranks lower than any other eurozone country (including Greece!). The difference between Italy and the eurozone core is now over two standard deviations below the core eurozone average.

While Italy stands out among its peers as having experienced a `lost decade' - although most of the normal growth factors have improved - the importance of better governance unfortunately has yet to be fully grasped in the country (and the European institution) and receives little attention in the national political debate.

As such it will be difficult to organise a sustained effort to combat corruption, foster adherence to the rule of law, and improve the efficiency of the administration in general. However, progress on these fronts might in the end be more important for growth than the reforms now being imposed by the EU.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 12:22:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Krugman blog: More About Italy (November 28, 2012)
Dean Baker, in correspondence, makes an interesting point about the mysterious productivity collapse in Italy -- namely, that a big chunk of it could be a statistical illusion. This is always something you should consider when you see something strange in economic data.

Here's the story: Italy, with its combination of extensive regulations and weak enforcement, used to have a lot of "black labor" -- workers who weren't on the books, so as to evade various government-imposed requirements. But then came reforms that made keeping part-time workers, etc., on the books less onerous -- and the hidden labor came into the open. Measured GDP wasn't affected, because statisticians were already making imputations for the shadow economy; so the result was a decline in measured productivity.

...

I don't want to claim that all is OK with Italy; clearly, the country has dysfunctional markets, a lot of monopoly rents, and is lagging in the use of information technology. But arguably it isn't the basket case some numbers suggest. And yes, you do wonder why the austerity program has to be as harsh as it is.



I distribute. You re-distribute. He gives your hard-earned money to lazy scroungers. -- JakeS
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Nov 29th, 2012 at 03:50:10 AM EST
and is lagging in the use of information technology

I just got an email confirmation of my citizenship application. Does that happen in the U.S. now?

by gk (g k quattro due due sette "at" gmail.com) on Thu Nov 29th, 2012 at 04:45:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And yes, you do wonder why the austerity program has to be as harsh as it is.

No, you don't. It's politicians using the crisis as an excuse to do stuff they've long wanted to to. Same as usual. TINA.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Nov 29th, 2012 at 04:58:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Possibly related to this. (Suffering is good...)
by Bernard on Thu Nov 29th, 2012 at 05:04:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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