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Jim O'Neill

A Crazy Idea About Italy

Maybe it's time to discipline Germany for letting Europe's lack of inflation get out of control.
Germany's mess, too.
Germany's mess, too.

I've spent a good deal of my 35 years as an economic and financial analyst puzzling over Italy. Studying its economy was my first assignment in this business -- as a matter of fact, Italy was the first foreign country I ever flew to. I'm just back from a vacation in Puglia and Basilicata. Over the decades, the question has never really changed: How can such a wonderful country find it such a perpetual struggle to succeed?

All the while, Italy has pitted weak government against a remarkably adaptable private sector and a particular prowess in small-scale manufacturing. An optimist by nature, I've generally believed these strengths would prevail and Italy would prosper regardless. In the days before Europe's economic and monetary union, though, it had one kind of flexibility it now lacks: a currency, which it could occasionally devalue. These periodic injections of stronger competitiveness were a great help to Fiat and other big exporters, and to smaller companies too.