Italy, Not Greece, at Heart of Euro Question

Lifting Italy’s growth path is more important to the eurozone’s future than Greece’s troubles

Greece may be the canary in the eurozone coal mine. But Italy is the elephant in the room.

For the eurozone to prosper, its members must be better off inside it than outside, as European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has highlighted.

The most obvious example of this is Greece. The new Greek government has submitted a fresh set of policy proposals to the eurozone in an effort to unlock €7.2 billion ($7.7 billion) in financing as deadlines for International Monetary Fund repayments and debt rollovers approach. The latest ideas rely heavily on generating new tax revenues and appear optimistic. Many investors still expect Europe to reach some agreement that keeps Greece in the euro, although nerves are being tested by the lack of progress so far.

But a longer-term and arguably more important question surrounds Italy, the eurozone’s third-biggest economy. If Greece’s crisis is acute, then Italy has the chronic variety: it has barely grown since

Output gap

In fact, Italy’s economy has been slowing down for decades: in the 1980s, average annual real gross domestic product growth was 2.1%, IMF data show. It slipped to 1.4% in the 1990s, 0.6% in the first decade of this century and has averaged -0.5% since 2010. Output remains some 9% below its 2008 peak.

Hope springs eternal for Italy, however, aided by ECB quantitative easing, lower oil prices and a weaker euro. The latest round of survey indicators look good: Markit’s March manufacturing purchasing managers index for Italy came in at 53.3, an 11-month high. Consumer and business sentiment has surged higher. The first quarter might mark the first since 2011 in which Italy records positive growth. UniCredit expects expansion of 0.2% on the quarter.

But hard data has been underwhelming. Industrial output fell 0.7% on the month in January, against expectations of an increase. Unemployment rose in February to 12.7%; youth unemployment climbed to 42.6%. Economists are inclined to view this as disappointing, but temporary: with conditions for the eurozone as a whole set fair, Italy should benefit. Indeed, if Italy cannot grow now, then when?

Yet Italy’s growth potential remains worryingly low. J.P. Morgan’s economists have pegged it as running near zero for several years. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s efforts to reform the country are vital. His efforts to improve the labor market deserve credit; one of the major barriers to growth has been a culture that stops small firms expanding and that over-protects existing employees to the detriment of young job seekers. But meanwhile Italy urgently needs to show it can at least generate cyclical growth.

Many important dates loom in the eurozone’s future. Greece’s April 9 repayment of €450 million to the IMF is a key hurdle for the eurozone to surmount. May 13 should bring news of Italy’s exit from a three-year recession; if it doesn’t, expect more questions to be asked about what the single currency does for its members.

Write to Richard Barley – THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

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