Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Why Spain is bust and Italy is only broke (again)


Despite a bad auction today, Italy seems overall in better shape than the rest of Southern Europe as the FT recognized today (Are Italy and Spain decoupling? | Brussels blog). It has run a primary deficit ever since the early 1990s, something way beyond the abilities of the other periphery countries at the moment. The reason for this is, ironically, the fact that Italian public debt has been at crisis levels for a couple of decades - Italy faced a huge fiscal crisis back in the early 1990s, which was resolved thanks to fiscal reforms and spending adjustments pushed through by more or less technocratic governments headed by Giuliano Amato, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Romano Prodi. Italy would never have qualified for the Euro had it not made this herculean effort. And although Berlusconi failed to maintain this downward pressure on the debt, his governments continued to run primary surpluses up until the crisis of 2008.

Clearly Italy has intractable structural weaknesses and the future is far from rosy. But at least it didn't delude itself with a glorious decade of debt-fuelled growth, like its Mediterranean neighbours to the East and West. This made the reckoning a lot easier to cope with, particularly since Italian banks don't seem to have abandoned their traditional caution when it comes to home loans and consumer credit. Things are bad, but not as bad as they could be, and if Italy is dragged into default, it will largely be the result of Eurozone-wide contagion, rather than its own specific weaknesses.

Anyway, the point of this post is largely to crow about the fact that I made this point a couple of years ago.