Italy is currently entering into what offers all the indications of being a major political gridlock. Manuel Alvarez perceptively entitled his summary and analysis of Prodi's first resignation offer in February 2007 "A crisis is born in Italy", could it be that the subsequent the crisis he then anticipated is now finally about to arrive?
Whatever the outcome of what is going to be the 32 confidence vote in only 21 months the social and economic backdrop to the crisis will remain. The Italian economy is now slowing visibly, and the Bank of Italy only last week lowered their growth forecast for the Italian economy to a mere 1%. Given what is happening even as I write in global stock markets and (whatever the immediate upshot to tomorrow's vote) Italy's obvious political instability even this may be an optimistic estimate (see my 2008 forecast here). Italy's real problem is, however, neither so immediate nor so dramatic, since if we look at the chart I present below what we can see is that Italy has been suffering from a process of congenital slow growth in the much longer term.
In what follows I intend to step back from the precipice a bit, and take a rather longer term look at one feature of Italy's economic performance, its labour and employment market. In this sense this post is going to form part of a "tripple whammy" I am working on, where I will attempt to carry out an in depth examination of possible connections and interconnections which may exist between population ageing, rapid job creation and weak internal consumption in three key G7 economies: Italy, Germany (see here) and Japan.
Well lets start by looking at the story so far, at least as far as Italy goes. Fortunately we do have a number of key stylised facts at our disposal. First off, unemployment has been steadily - I could say relentlessly - dropping in Italy over the last two or three years:
and new jobs have been created, lots of them:
Yet at the same time domestic demand has not been revived to anything like the extent that might have been expected. Retail sales have been in decline for most of the last year as you can see from this retail-sales purchasing-managers-index for Italy (remember that on the PMI reading, anything below 50 represents a contraction).
Meanwhile private household consumption, despite some early strengthening, could hardly be said to have been booming. We did see a couple of (in Italian terms) comparatively strong quarters in the first half of 2007, but then, surprisingly - as can be seen in the chart below - the rate of increase began to weaken in Q3, while, curiuosly, in the position in the Italian labour market remained, more or less, stable.
So how can we account for this apparent paradox of a steadily tightening labour market and deteriorating internal consumer demand? One explanation for this could, of course, be that labour market performance is a lagged indicator (that is that it only registers economic deterioration after other indicators have been pointing to red for some time, and this is surely true), but could there not be something more going on here? Especially since this kind of pattern is being repeated in Germany and Japan, and these two countries have, along with Italy, the highest global median age, and as a result the highest proportions of potential workers in the older age groups. There is something very different about the labour market tightening we are seeing in Italy, Japan and Germany, for example, and the kind of inflation generating labour market tightening which we are observing in Eastern Europe. So why this difference?
Italy's Age Structure
But first off let's take a look at one of the younger age groups for a minute, the 15 to 24 one. As is well known this group is now in historic decline as a proportion of the total Italian population. The decline has been very rapid, with a drop of around one third (from 15% to 10% of the population) since 1990.
What this means, logically enough, is that there are steadily less and less people in this age group to fill places in the labour market. To this numerical decline we need to add theongoing secular decline in economic activity rates among this group, as more and more of Italy's - now scarce resource - young people delay entry and seek to improve their education, their human capital rating and hence their future earning capacity.
Thus the proportion of this group which is economically active has been declining steadily, as have the absolute numbers of those who are active, and the numbers of those who are actually employed. It is perhaps worth noting that the absolute size of this age group has been virtually stationary over the last 3 or 4 years (a statistical effect), but it is now set to fall steadily.
So if new employees will be hard to come by in this age group as we move forward, where can employment growth come from? Well basically there are two evident potential sources of labour, immigration and older workers. It is hard to envisage any large increase in employment in the 25 to 34 or the 35 to 54 age groups since - as can be seen from the chart below - activity rates among these groups are already fairly high, and even the slight fall-off which can be seen to have taken place recently in the 25 to 34 age group seems to be the result of a decline in female activity rates, and this is almost to be hoped for if Italy is to do one thing which is very important for its long term future, and that is have more children. Squeezing this particular lemon too hard at this point in time is only likely to obtain short term benefit in return for substantial negative long term outcomes.
Turning now to the principle sources of potential long run labour supply, in the first place it is obvious enough that there has been a significant surge in the size of the immigrant workforce in recent years (see chart below, and my other post for more details).
The other main potential source of additional labour in an ageing economy is the over 55 age group (and as we move forward of course increasingly it will become the over 65 one). Now many international agencies (the World Bank, the OECD, the IMF, the EU Commission etc) are pinning their hopes on the idea that the effects of population ageing may be to some extent offset by increasing the participation rates of these older workers, presenting impressive looking projections all the way out to 2050 to back their view that this is a workable solution. Yet since we have, in the here and now, a number of examples of societies who are trying quite hard to follow recommendations here, I do think it is important to examine in detail what is actually happening in these societies and try to really start to estimate the longer term macroeconomic consequences of this shift.
Now the important thing to bear in mind when we speak of older workers is that the important decision they need to take is about whether or not to continue working, and what is very clear in the Italian context is that workers in the 55 to 64 age group are increasingly taking the decision to stay at work, in some form or another.
Not only is the activity rate - which has, it must be said, been ridiculously low for this group, especially given Italy's very high life expectancy level - on the way up, the unemployment rate is on its way down, and the number of those employed is steadily rising.
More Work, Less Pay?
What is also significant about this trend is that it is also associated with a significant growth in part time and temporary work. The question really is who is doing this part-time/temporary work? In Japan it has become clear that many people now leave their "lifelong" job at 55, only to continue working in some way shape or form for another 15 years or so (both the Economist and the Financial Times have recently run articles about this trend in Japan - see here - although they fail to explicitly lock-it-in to the ageing population issue, which I think is where it belongs) . The work ethic in Japan is probably quite different from the one in Italy, but the similarities in the way the labour markets are evolving are really quite striking . In the German context it is also clear that the growth in part time and in non-social-security covered employment has been significant. And of course, in Germany, as I explain at considerable length here, the big increase in employment is in comparatively low skill, low wage work, which very often draws the over 55s into employment in much the same way and for much the same reasons as it does in Italy and Japan.
So what IS observable in the case of all 3 of these economies is that they are experiencing at one and the same time skill-shortages in some key areas of economic activity (due to the growing population crunch among the young - Japan for example is notoriously short of nurses) and generating large volume employment in more tenuous and lower skilled categories of work, since such work meets the skill and performance profile of the workforce they really have available. Thus, even as these labour markets tighten we find NO real evidence of significant wage-squeeze push.
From this point in we are left guessing until someone does some really systematic research, but it isn't a bad guess to suggest that the pressure on wages in the more skilled areas is being offset by a downward movement in wages in those less skilled areas where a mixture of lower skilled migrants, retirees and older workers are offering themselves for work in increasing numbers.
One other conjecture about Italy is that migrants are doing jobs in Italy which retired or semi-retired workers are doing in Germany and Japan, and hence we find that the participation rates in the 55 to 64 age group are still pretty low. At the moment I'm not quite sure what the macro economic consequences of this are going to be.
My feeling is that since people reaching 60 can now expect to live quite a long time, and since nowadays there is no great certainty attached to current levels of retirement benefit as we move forward, then older people, who are normally more prudent, will be protecting their current savings - in whatever form they may hold them - as best they can, and supplementing pensions with bits and pieces of work to maintain living standards so as to not run down their capital.
Another point here is that many retirees in Italy have a lot less in the way of accumulated wealth (and imagine the situation in a country like Hungary, which is the next one coming in this group as far as I can see, even though the median age is somewhat younger, but the male life expectancy is also much lower, and the population is already falling) in comparison with Germany and Japan.
This is why the recent deal Prodi struck with the Italian unions about postponing raising the retirement age was such a negative when viewed from where I am sitting.
So what I am suggesting is that the very weak internal consumption we are seeing in these three countries (and I would drop-in that Hungary is "coupling" here perfectly with the others, in terms of the model I am working on) is not ONLY associated with a higher propensity to save associated with older people, but also to do with the earnings profile associated with the new kinds of low level work older people are doing. In other words you can't just take the large number of new jobs being created and translate this into more consumption (as I think most of the conventional analysts are doing) since more things are happening here.
North-South Regional Stresses and Imbalances
But in any event the data we have is fascinating. The regional disequilibrium in Italy seem to be once more becoming really important (just like East-West one in Germany, and Tokyo vs the rest in Japan). While the national participation rate for the 55 to 64 age group went up from 28.9% in Q1 2004 to 33% in Q3 2007, in the mezzogiorno it has gone up from 31.8 to 35.3 over the samer period, so the South is keeping pace here, but if we look at the 65 plus group, while participation has gone from 3.4% to 4% nationally over the same period, in the mezzogiorno it has gone DOWN from 2.4 to 2.1%. The 15 to 64 participation rate also dropped from 54.1 to 52.5 over the period in the mezzogiorno while in the North it went up from 67.8 to 69.2 %. And this situation is reflected in the relative job creation performance between the North and the South.
Basically, given the very strong fiscal pressure which is about to come in Italy, and the danger IMHO of a sovereign default at some point if nothing is done to correct this very weak growth trajectory, Italy can be almost literally torn apart by this disequilibrium, especially given that it is reinforced by the unequal distribution of migrants. We have an ongoing polarisation of wealth, employment and people, and we really aren't giving sufficient consideration to the longer term political implications of the underlying economo-demographic process.
New Forms of Employment: Temporary and Part-Time Work
I have also found a limited breakdown for part time work by age. The two categories which the Italian statistics office use are "15 to 34" and "35 and over". Now strange as it may seem the number of part-time jobs for the 15 to 34 age group actually went DOWN between Q1 2004 and Q3 2007 - from 1.107 millions to 1.102 million - while among the over 35s it went up from 1.74 to 2.121 million. So Italy's new part-time workers are by-and-large not young, and it is a good bet that the majority of these new workers come from the over 55 group, and that it this kind of work which is responsible for the increase in the participation rates at the higher ages.
Of course, when we come to look at TEMPORARY work the pattern is rather different, there are an increasing number of young people (and since the number of such people is steadily declining, a rising proportion) working on temporary contracts. The number has gone up from 1.035 million in Q1 2004 to 1.368 million in Q3 2007. Over 35s (which we can pretty much imagine as over 55s, since the 35 to 55 age group is normally pretty robust in employment participation terms) goes up from 679,000 to 993,000.
By Way of a Conclusion
Basically the macro economics of all this are hard to assess. Italy's working age population - ex migration - has touched the ceiling, and without immigration it will go down and down. So everything depends on raising the productivity of those employed. But raising productivity today is pretty much synonymous with raising the human capital component and if in volume terms the numbers of older but less qualified people working - and working in more and more fragile and less and less well-paid occupations - swamps the number of new highly educated workers in highly productive jobs (we are talking about aggregates here) then the new value created by the society in question won't compensate for the contraction in the workforce. This is particularly true when it comes to raising participation rates in that oft quoted potential labour supply, female workers over 55. Many of the women in question are excellent wives and mothers, but given their often very low level of formal education, and given their lack of real experience of work out of the home, the economic worth in value added terms of their formal labour market participation may be much lower than many expect, and certainly this is where the evidence to date is leading us.
I also feel that the Italian experience is very similar and comparable with what we have been seeing in Japan and Germany, so it seems to me that there is now strong prima facie evidence that we need a big and really systematic research programme into the details of all of this, and rather less of that "gung-ho", we haven't got a problem approach, which has prevailed up to now, and which - at the end of the day - is based on the idea that raising participation rates will do the trick. As we are seeing, and unfortunately, it may well not do. It will do something, but that something may well not be enough.