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Italy: escaping the high-debt and low-growth trap

With its public debt amounting to 132.1% of GDP and its negative productivity growth over the last twenty years, Italy appears to be the sick man of the European Union. In this Policy brief, we focus on its two main plights: high public debt burden on the one hand, sluggish GDP and productivity growth on the other hand. Both issues are intimately related: a slow growth limits the budgetary margins and casts doubts on public debt sustainability; the reduced fiscal space in turn weighs on growth and public investment. The first part is dedicated to describing the history and causes of Italian public debt. A first phase, from the 1960s to the 1980s, was characterized by a positive but moderate growth of debt. A second phase saw the explosion of public debt, from 54% of GDP in 1980 to roughly 117% in 1994. The budget law of the Amato's government in 1992 initiated a third phase, marked by a significant fiscal consolidation effort, and the decrease of the public debt to GDP ratio. The Great Recession interrupted this consolidation era and a last phase began from 2008 on, when the public debt-to-GDP ratio consequently increased. In the second part, we review some of the structural weaknesses of the Italian economy. We notably emphasize the specialization bias towards low tech sectors, the “nanism” of Italian firms, the misallocation of talents and resources, the North-South divide and its related labor market consequences.