The Great Debate UK
By Laurence Copeland. The author is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School. The opinions expressed are his own.
Let me make a wild guess – just a hunch, a vague feeling, the kind you get when you hear a football club chairman say “the manager has my full support”. My forecast is that the IMF monitors currently poring over the Italian government’s books will uncover a black hole somewhere, probably one big enough to swallow the euro zone, and the discovery will leave them as shocked as Captain Renault when he found there was gambling going on at Rick’s Bar in Casablanca.
My gut feeling is based on a deeply rooted suspicion of Italian statistics dating back to the early 1970’s, when I got my first job in academic life, as a research assistant in the University of Manchester. In that more tranquil era, it seemed possible to uncover a number of stable relationships between macroeconomic variables for all the other countries in the industrial world, but somehow never for Italy, which was always the outlier. Suspicion of the data is reinforced by the well-established claim that as much as 25 percent of Italy’s production is in the economia sommersa, the underground economy, exempt from taxation, unmonitored and unregulated (in fact, the Italian authorities have sometimes seemed to take a pride in its size, notably in 1987, when by a sleight of the statistician’s hand, Italy’s GDP was deemed to have overtaken that of Britain, thanks to an overnight reassessment of the scale of the country’s black market).
Even if Italy’s predicament is no worse than it appears from official statistics, the outlook is grim. It is hard to imagine a Berlusconi-led government successfully enforcing a serious austerity regime, but neither is it likely that an opposition dominated by ex-Communists could succeed where he failed. Moreover, as with Greece, those who are enthusiastic for a non-partisan administration made up of technocrats forget that mustering support in parliament is not enough. Restoring Italy to fiscal health will need a government able and willing to enforce spending cuts, raise taxes (or at least collect them more vigorously) and deregulate labour markets in the face of bitter and potentially violent opposition from trade unions, the professions and probably much of the public. It is not obvious to me that a government of supposedly neutral technocrats is better placed to achieve all this.