Italy has fallen into its third recession in a decade as slumping domestic demand caused the economy to shrink.
GDP fell by 0.2pc in the final three months of 2018, following a 0.1pc decline in the third quarter of the year. That met the usual definition of a recession - two consecutive quarters of contraction. [Mish note: I see only two instance of back-to-back declines but there are better definitions.]
The eurozone as a whole expanded by 0.2pc, the same pace as in the previous quarter. Compared with the final quarter of 2017, eurozone GDP rose by 1.2pc, its weakest 12-month performance since the 2012-13 recession that accompanied the sovereign debt crisis.
“We expect the European Central Bank to revise down its GDP forecasts, of 1.7pc growth this year and next, in March and to make clear that it does not expect to raise interest rates until next year at the earliest.” German officials have already cut their own forecasts of national growth from 1.8pc for 2019 to just 1pc.
Don't Blame Austerity
- Global Economic Slowdown: The world economy seems to be at a tipping point. After a long, slow recovery from the financial crisis growth was back on track a year ago, yet momentum has faded. Fears now abound. China has slowed. The US has peaked.
- Confidence: The combination of political turmoil, weak international growth, worries over debts and the long-term travails of Italy’s banks has left the country’s businesses on edge. Investment remains is muted as companies hold off committing to any big financial decisions.
- Debt: Italy’s government has debts of more than 130pc of GDP - a tottering pile that limits its spending power, threatens higher taxes on workers and businesses, and risks destabilizing financial markets. Countries do not rack up debts like this by accident: borrowing and spending is a tried and tested way to pep up growth. However, at this level, debt is now a constraint on the economy.
- Banks: The banking crisis began a decade ago, but Italy’s lenders were never fully cleaned up.
- Permanent Crisis: Italy’s eternally slow growth rate indicates there are very fundamental problems with the structure of its economy. Yet successive governments have also struggled to make any of the necessary reforms, despite constant urging from economists including those at the European Central Bank. The economy is heavily regulated, with access to many professions tightly limited and an inflexible jobs market.
Rating the Reasons
Numbers 5, 3, and 4 are at the center of the crisis in that order. Number 2 is a symptom of those three. Number 1 is simply a recent development that didn't help.
Number five above is the best reason. For decades Italy has been in a permanent crisis. It's court system, tax schemes, ease at starting a business, work rules are pathetic. Fraud is rampant, but it has to be for people to escape onerous regulation.
Missing Item: The Euro
The euro did not cause Italy's problem, but it did make the problem much worse. Italy never belonged in the Eurozone. To be more specific, the euro was a failed construct from the beginning.
Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, etc, all have differing work ethics, levels of productivity, and regulation. The less the regulation, the better the economic chances.
The idea that there could be one interest rate set by the ECB that would foster growth among widely diverse economies was fatally flawed. We saw that with Greece, Spain, Portugal, and now Italy.
The negative balance at the ECB is a function of its bond buying, quantitative easing manipulation practices.
Too Big to Bail, Too Big to Jail
Italy owes creditors close to half a trillion euros. How's that supposed to work?
Italy is too big to bail, and too big to jail. It cannot be locked up like Greece and Cypress, so the ECB is itself caught in a trap of perpetually buying Italian government debt because few else want that debt.
Supposedly, all Eurozone debt is "risk free". If the market agreed, Greek and Italian bonds would trade at the same yield. They don't and won't.
Mike "Mish" Shedlock