The Italian Economy, Up Close And Personal
Our Milan business and finance correspondent is moving back to Germany. Before leaving, he tried his hand at small-time Italian entrepreneurship: selling the entire contents of his apartment. Not so easy, as it turns out.
She has brown eyes, she's pretty — and she doesn't take me seriously. ‘"Don't make such a big deal about it. It's only a refrigerator!"" she says. It's a mild evening, and we're at a bar; she's having an Aperol Spritz, I'm having a beer. To everybody I meet these days, I mention the fact that I'm trying to sell the contents of my apartment. But despite initial interest, all potential takers eventually start to back off. ‘"What kind of country is this, where nobody wants to fix an appointment?"" I complain. The young woman rolls her eyes. ‘"Come on,"" she says. ‘‘Chill.""
Chill! I've spent three years in Milan, reporting for Die Welt about Italy's banks, industry, and economic policy. Now I'm moving to Munich to continue working as an economics reporter for the paper. And I want the move to be easy. I don't want the bother of having a refrigerator, a washing machine and furniture trucked over the Alps. So I'm selling everything.
I never would have thought that this modest bit of entrepreneurship would turn out to be one last lesson in Italian economic life. Yet as I've written often enough: in the rankings of the world's most business-friendly countries, the World Bank places Italy 80th, well behind the UK, Germany and Spain. It's hard to be in business here — even if all you're doing is trying to sell the contents of your apartment.
Thirty-seven days before moving day. I get a phone call. ‘"Ciao,"" says a friendly female voice. "I saw your ad. I'd like to buy everything." Fabulous news! I only posted the pictures of my stuff a few hours ago on the Internet. The caller says her name is Silvia. I promise her a 10% discount if she takes everything.
"When do you want to come by?" I ask her.
"Uhh, do I have to come by?"
"Sure, how can you decide if you haven't seen the stuff? How about next week?"
"Next week's a little late," she replies. "Can you hold everything for me, and I'll come by tomorrow?" We agree on 6 p.m.
The next day, I close up the office a little earlier than usual and get home by 5:45. The telephone rings. It's Silvia. "I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to make it, I'm held up at work," she says. I hide my annoyance, and we set an appointment for Saturday. Until then, I'll hold everything for her.
The legal route
On Saturday, the weather's great -- a perfect day for an excursion to the mountains or the beach. That's apparently the way Silvia saw it too. She doesn't show up, and doesn't reply to my text messages or calls. Three days later, she explains she had to go to Florence on business and didn't have any credit left on her cell phone. She asks if we can make another appointment, and I tell her to forget it. Doing business with her is just too uncertain. A lawyer friend of mine tells me: "Her agreement is tantamount to a contract with you. She is legally obligated to buy your stuff."
"Yeah, sure. And how exactly am I supposed to see that one through?"
If you talk to non-Italians working for foreign companies in Italy, they all complain about one thing: the lack of legal certainty. That's mainly due to a slow-moving judicial system. A company wishing to collect money it is owed, for example, would have on average about four years worth of procedures on its hands and would have to invest about a third of the amount they were trying to collect in lawyers' and court costs just in case somebody goes bankrupt along the way. This could explain why the World Bank ranked Italy 157th in the world in matters of "enforcing contracts." That puts it behind Pakistan, Togo and Iraq.
Politics too play their role in turning chaos into a system. Just one example: the solar power industry. Italy attracted a lot of interest, not least from German firms, with promises of hefty subsidies. Then there was some wobbling on whether subsidies would continue, and how they would be granted. Stocks of solar companies plummeted, investments were relegated to the back burner—and it was finally decided that there would be no changes after all. That is not what a solid investment climate looks like.
Who profits from this? Lawyers of course, and those who don't play by the rules. In fact, they're rewarded for their behavior—how many times has Berlusconi gotten around allegations of false accounting and tax fraud? Honesty is often equated with stupidity in Italy.
Twenty-nine days ‘till the move. "Hi, this is Angelo,"" says a friendly man on the phone. "We're furnishing our home, and need a whole bunch of stuff,"" he tells me. By this time I've learned my lesson, I won't reserve anything unless I get a down payment, cash. He comes by the same day, and puts money down for the refrigerator and a kitchen cupboard. So this tactic works. A couple of days later, I call Angelo and ask him where things stand. "I'll take the fridge,"" he says. "What about the cupboard?‘‘ I ask. ‘‘I don't know. The guy we're renting from isn‘t ready for us to move in yet."" I feel for his predicament, but I'm still slightly pissed off. The cupboard goes back up for sale.
Actually, Angelo can count himself lucky he even needs a refrigerator. Many Italians his age have to live with their parents. Ninety percent of young men between the ages of 21 and 24 live with their parents, as do 38% of those in the 30 to 34 age group.
Not just mamma's boys
These aren't big babies, taking it easy at the Mommy Hotel. These are victims of the status quo. Older workers, if employed by a mid-sized or larger company, stand a pretty good chance of keeping their jobs; the unions and their fairly brutal methods see to that, and so far no government has dared messing with this fossilized job market. Young people, on the other hand, don't have a lobby. They spend years doing internships for little or no pay. Italy is basically crucifying its young people: the low rate of economic growth doesn't make it possible to create the number of jobs they need. Worldwide, only Haiti has a slower rate of growth than Italy.
Now: it would be unkind of me to make any kind of link between the snail's pace at which Italy is moving and Maria. But Maria really is unbelievably slow. She and I have a very intense Internet relationship. In her first e-mail, she tells me she is very interested in the items I have for sale, particularly the bed which, with mattress, I'm selling for 19 euros. I would have thought that for money like that, a quick decision would be easy. Not for Maria. She asks question after question about height, wood color, solidity of the slats… 18 e-mails in all. Finally on Friday we agree to meet but instead of showing up she sends an e-mail suggesting we switch it to Saturday instead. "Only if you're serious about coming,"" I write. The next morning she replies somewhat mysteriously that ‘"things are hanging by a slim thread."" She doesn't show up.
In Italy, acts often do not follow words. All over the country, there are streets, power plants, garbage incineration facilities, railroad tracks and in the making but only a few actually get built. The Nimby Forum has been documenting these instances. In English, ‘"nimby"" stands for ‘"not in my backyard"" and that describes the attitude of many Italians, who think that roads and railway tracks are a fine thing as long as they are not built in the vicinity of where they live. The Nimby Forum has recorded 320 presently shelved construction projects. However, it would be unfair to ascribe this to obstructive citizens alone because in Italy if there's political will to get something done, it gets done no matter how much opposition there is to it—as the new incinerator plant in Naples amply demonstrates.
Maria turns out to be a great example of that. With the intensity of our e-mail exchanges mounting, I let her know I'd rather throw the bed on the junk heap than waste any more time for 19 euros. An hour later, Maria's daughters are in my apartment dismantling the bed.
By Monday, the apartment is nearly empty. All the wine‘s gone. I've given my supplies of pasta, rice, flour, oil, vinegar and spices to a kind of flat-sharing commune in the building. Nothing but a couple of packing boxes are coming with me to Munich. The fridge is still here, though. Angelo's girlfriend says she's coming by to get it this evening. Angelo's not coming and his girlfriend doesn't have a car—how that's supposed to work, I don't know. But I stay calm. One way or another, it will.
‘"Chill!‘‘ That advice in the bar was probably the best I got. It was born of experience. In Italy, things often happen at the last minute. That's why I have every faith that Angelo's girlfriend is not only going to turn up: she'll have a couple of strong guys and a van with her; and why I wouldn't hesitate to invest the money I made selling my stuff in Italian government bonds. Italy somehow managed to avoid bankruptcy in the 1990s, and I am certain that—despite record-high debt—they'll be able to do it again.
Read the original article in German
Photo credit - ornella.s