After Greece, Italy?

On 23 October the European Commission asked the Italian government to revisit its budget plan. This is unprecedented as no EU member state had been asked to do this before. The Italian coalition government, constituted by the populist Five-Star Movement and the Lega, had proposed a 2.4 percent deficit of Gross Domestic Product, and a structural deficit of 1.7 percent which was far beyond what the member states had agreed back in 2012 under the ‘fiscal compact’. The EU believes that the deficit is more likely to be 2.9 percent. The EU has threatened Italy with sanctions, which may result in concessions by the populist leaders.

The fiscal compact, (not agreed upon by Britain and the Czech Republic) set the limit for a general deficit not exceeding 3 percent of GDP, and a structural deficit (the part of the deficit due to spending programmes and not to how the economy is doing) not exceeding 0.5 percent of the GDP for countries with large debts such as Italy. This is nothing more than an austerity measure mirroring the debt brake model adopted by Switzerland in 2003 and by Germany in 2009. This consists of separating the structural deficit from the cyclical deficit, where the latter takes into account the fluctuations in economic growth. In simple words, the state was to not allow deficits when the economy is growing but only when the economy is shrinking. By doing so it would reduce the public debt across the business cycle.

Although this austerity measure has so far worked in Switzerland and Germany, it may have worked because of lucky circumstances, namely strong economic growth at the right time, but this may not be sustainable in countries where the GDP is consistently low. Not allowing for deficits or allowing minimal deficits in a struggling economy may be a recipe for strangulation.

Annual government budget deficits in a country with a huge historic national debt like Italy (138 percent of GDP) are, on average, more likely to be greater than in a country with a smaller national debt (for example, 57 percent of GDP for the Netherlands). For the record, the UK has a national debt equal to 88 percent of GDP. It should be noted that Japan has an even higher national debt than Italy (199 percent of GDP), yet only 11 percent of it is to foreign creditors, while in Italy’s case one third of it is owned by them.

The total annual deficit takes into account not only government spending being higher than tax revenues, but also debt interest payments. Thus, it would be unfair to judge the Italian or other governments in a similar situation as necessarily being extravagant. They are, in part, working to pay off the interest on the debt. As we know, government spending does not just supposedly benefit public infrastructures (see the bridges falling down), or education, health and pension systems. Italian spending on those services is in line with, if lower than, the other EU countries. Yet, Italy is stuck with this huge debt. Why?

Out of control

According to many, the Italian national debt spun out of control in the early 80s when the Bank of Italy and the Treasury ‘divorced’. Basically, the first stopped buying Italian bonds that were not sold.  State bonds are the way the government borrows money to finance its spending and to pay back its previous debt plus interest. Unsold state bonds triggered a steep rise in the interest rate. As with loan sharks, the Italian state found itself having to pay out more to borrow money, which in turn increased the accumulated national debt payments.

This ‘divorce’ was a defensive measure and, although it did mitigate the fleeing of savings and some argued that it helped reduce inflation, it did not help slowdown debt issuance. Yet, if we were to plot Italian public debt over the decades no particularly steep increase is to be seen after the 1981 divorce either. The oil crises in the 70s, political nepotism, which created an inflated state infrastructure, and a money-wasting corrupt administration, are probably more obvious original sins. Nevertheless, the real problem with Italy is the lack of economic growth. If we were to plot Italian GDP over time we can see that after crisis of 2007-8, this has struggled to increase and actually decreased by 10 percent (UK GDP decreased by 7 percent in the slump). Government spending on research and new technologies has also been neglected.

The official version of events for the M5S and Lega is that things started to go wrong in 1981 and that the EU limits and restriction did not help the ever-growing national debt problem. Both M5S and Lega had an anti-EU, anti-Merkel electoral campaign. Now they are continuing to play this card in view of the European elections later this year. However, it is fair to believe that the Italian government is not doing this only for the sake of going against the EU and being successful at the next elections. They do believe that an anti-austerity policy will help to boost the economy and will promote 1.5 percent economic growth (real GDP). The EU, on the other hand, do not trust this plan and are interested only in what Italy can pay back to their creditors. The EU’s doubts about this seem to have some validity as the spread, that is the ‘gap between Italian and German bond yields which the Italian media follow obsessively’ (Economist, October), is up to 3.2 percentage points.

Past experience shows that the type of ‘pump-priming’ Keynesian policy as proposed by M5S and Lega does not work. It will not reduce the public debt, and it will not promote research and development of new technologies. As with the Greeks (who the EU and the IMF forced the government there to squeezed), the Italian workers will be portrayed as lazy extravagant tax-evading people. This does not reflect the reality, but benefits the ruling class. We workers should look beyond national borders and opt for a society where meeting people’s needs is not subordinated to meeting interest payments to international loan sharks.