In the post-war period, Italy was transformed from an agricultural based economy which had been severely affected by the consequences of the World Wars, into one of the world’s most advanced nations, and a leading country in world trade and exports. According to the Human Development Index, the country enjoys a very high standard of living, and has the world’s 8th highest quality of life according to The Economist. Italy owns the world’s third-largest gold reserve, and is the third net contributor to the budget of the European Union. Furthermore, the country’s private wealth is one of the largest in the world.
Italy is a large manufacturer (overall the second in EU behind Germany) and exporter of a significant variety of products including machinery, vehicles, pharmaceuticals, furniture, food, clothing, and robots. Italy has therefore a significant trade surplus. The country is also well known for its influential and innovative business economic sector, an industrious and competitive agricultural sector (Italy is the world’s largest wine producer),and for its creative and high-quality automobile, naval, industrial, appliance and fashion design. Italy is the largest hub for luxury goods in Europe and the third luxury hub globally.
Despite these important achievements, the country’s economy today suffers from structural and non-structural problems. Annual growth rates have often been below the EU average with Italy being hit particularly hard by the late-2000s recession. Massive government spending from the 1980s onwards has produced a severe rise in public debt. In addition, Italian living standards have a considerable North–South divide: the average GDP per capita in Northern and Central Italy significantly exceeds the EU average, while some regions and provinces in Southern Italy are dramatically below. In recent years, Italy’s GDP per capita growth slowly caught-up with the Eurozone average while its employment rate still lags behind; however, economists dispute the official figures because of the large number of informal jobs (estimated between 10% and 20% of the labour force) that lift the inactivity or unemployment rates.
After the end of World War II, Italy was in rubble and occupied by foreign armies, a condition that worsened the chronic development gap towards the more advanced European economies. However, the new geopolitical logic of the Cold War made possible that the former enemy Italy, a hinge-country between Western Europe and the Mediterranean, and now a new, fragile democracy threatened by the NATO occupation forces, the proximity of the Iron Curtain and the presence of a strong Communist party, was considered by the United States as an important ally for the Free World, and received under the Marshall Plan over US$1.2 billion from 1947-51.
The end of aid through the Plan could have stopped the recovery but it coincided with a crucial point in the Korean War whose demand for metal and manufactured products was a further stimulus of Italian industrial production. In addition, the creation in 1957 of the European Common Market, with Italy as a founding member, provided more investment and eased exports.
These favorable developments, combined with the presence of a large labour force, laid the foundation for spectacular economic growth that lasted almost uninterrupted until the “Hot Autumn‘s” massive strikes and social unrest of 1969–70, which then combined with the later 1973 oil crisis and put an abrupt end to the prolonged boom. It has been calculated that the Italian economy experienced an average rate of growth of GDP of 5.8% per year between 1951–63, and 5% per year between 1964–73. Italian rates of growth were second only, but very close, to the German rates, in Europe, and among the OEEC countries only Japan had been doing better.
In spite of a very high public debt and political instability (Italy has had four governments since 2011), the Italian economy since 2014 has returned to growth (an event known as “la ripresa”) and is expected to grow by 1.5% or more in 2017, mainly thanks to a rise in exports and the reform of the banking system. The solidity of the long-term economic recovery is confirmed by Warren Buffett‘s recent investments.
Of the world’s 500 largest stock-market-listed companies measured by revenue in 2016, the Fortune Global 500, nine are headquartered in Italy. The country’s major companies by sector are: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, CNH Industrial, Ducati, Piaggio (motor vehicles); Pirelli (tyre manufacturing); Enel, Edison, A2A, Terna (energy); Eni (petrochemicals); Candy, Indesit, De’Longhi (home appliances); Leonardo that has absorbed its subsidiary companies Alenia Aermacchi, AgustaWestland and Oto Melara (defence); Avio, Telespazio (space); Beretta, Benelli (firearms); Armani, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Benetton, Diesel, Prada, Luxottica, YOOX (fashion); Ferrero, Barilla, Autogrill, Lavazza, Perfetti Van Melle, Campari, Parmalat(food&beverages); Techint, Lucchini, Gruppo Riva, Danieli (steel); Prysmian, Salini Impregilo, Italcementi, Buzzi Unicem, Astaldi (construction); STMicroelectronics (electronics); Telecom Italia, Mediaset (communications); Assicurazioni Generali, Unipol (insurance); UniCredit, Intesa Sanpaolo (banking); Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini (luxury vehicles); Fincantieri, Ferretti, Azimut (shipbuilding).
Italy has over 1.4 million people with a net wealth greater than $1 million, a total national wealth of $11.857 trillion, and represents the 5th largest cumulative net wealth globally (it accounts for 4.92% of the net wealth in the world). According to the Credit Suisse‘s Global Wealth Databook 2013, the median wealth per adult is $138,653 (5th in the world), while according to the Allianz‘s Global Wealth Report 2013, the net financial wealth per capita is €45,770 (13th in the world).
The following top 10 list of Italian billionaires is based on an annual assessment of wealth and assets compiled and published by Forbes in 2017.
Vineyards near Certaldo, Tuscany. Italy is the world’s top wine producer (22% of global market).
According to the last national agricultural census, there were 1.6 million farms in 2010 (-32.4% since 2000) covering 12.7 million hectares (63% of which are located in Southern Italy). The vast majority (99%) are family-operated and small, averaging only 8 hectares in size. Of the total surface area in agricultural use (forestry excluded), grain fields take up 31%, olive tree orchards 8.2%, vineyards 5.4%, citrus orchards 3.8%, sugar beets 1.7%, and horticulture 2.4%. The remainder is primarily dedicated to pastures (25.9%) and feed grains (11.6%). The northern part of Italy produces primarily maize corn, rice, sugar beets, soybeans, meat, fruits and dairy products, while the South specializes in wheat and citrus fruits. Livestock includes 6 million head of cattle, 8.6 million head of swine, 6.8 million head of sheep, and 0.9 million head of goats. The total annual production of the fishing industry in Italy from capture and aquaculture, including crustaceans and molluscs, is around 480,000 tons.
Italy has a smaller number of global multinational corporations than other economies of comparable size, but there is a large number of small and medium-sized enterprises, many of them grouped in clusters, which are the backbone of the Italian industry. This has produced a manufacturing sector often focused on the export of niche market and luxury products, that on one side is less capable of competing on quantity, but on the other side is more capable of facing the competition from emerging economies based on lower labor costs, with higher quality products. The industrial districts are regionalized: in the Northwest there is a large modern group of industries, as in the so-called “Industrial Triangle” (Milan-Turin-Genoa), where there is an area of intense machinery, automotive, aerospace and navalproduction; in the Northeast and the Center, previously rural areas that experienced social and economic development around family-based firms, there are small enterprises of low technology but high craftsmanship, specialized in clothing, leather products, footwear, furniture, textiles, machine tools, spare parts, appliances, and jewellery; finally, in the less-developed South, the two forms exist side by side.
The origins of modern banking can be traced to medieval and early Renaissance Italy, to the rich cities like Florence, Lucca, Siena, Venice and Genoa. The Bardi and Peruzzi families dominated banking in 14th-century Florence, establishing branches in many other parts of Europe. One of the most famous Italian banks was the Medici Bank, set up by Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici in 1397. The earliest known state deposit bank, the Bank of Saint George, was founded in 1407 in Genoa,while Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, founded in 1472, is the oldest surviving bank in the world. Today, among the financial services companies, UniCredit is one of the largest bank in Europe by capitalization and Assicurazioni Generali is second largest insurance group in the world by revenue after AXA.
Energy and natural resources
Natural resources of Italy. Metals are in blue (Al — aluminium ore, Mn — manganese, Fe — iron ore, Hg — mercury, PM — polymetallic ores (Cu, Zn, Ag, Pb), PY — pyrite). Fossil fuels are in red (C — coal, G — natural gas, L — lignite, P — petroleum). Non-metallic minerals are in green (ASB — asbestos, F — fluorite, K — potash, MAR — marble, S — sulfur).
In the early 1970s Italy was a major producer of pyrites (from the Tuscan Maremma), asbestos (from the Balangero mines), fluorite (found in Sicily), and salt. At the same time, it was self-sufficient in aluminum (from Gargano), sulphur (from Sicily), lead, and zinc (from Sardinia). By the beginning of the 1990s, however, it had lost all its world-ranking positions and was no longer self-sufficient in those resources. There are no substantial deposits of iron, coal, or oil. Moderate natural gas reserves, mainly in the Po Valley and offshore Adriatic Sea, have been discovered in recent years and constitute the country’s most important mineral resource. Italy is one of the world’s leading producers of pumice, pozzolana, and feldspar. Another mineral resource for which Italy is well-known is marble, especially the world-famous white Carrara marble from the Massa and Carrara quarries in Tuscany. Most raw materials needed for manufacturing and more than 80% of the country’s energy sources are imported (99.7% of the solid fuels demand, 92.5% of oil, 91.2% of natural gas and 13% of electricity). Due to its reliance on imports, Italians pay approximately 45% more than the EU average for electricity.
Italy has managed four nuclear reactors until the 1980s, but in 1987, after the Chernobyl disaster, a large majority of Italians passed a referendum opting for phasing out nuclear power in Italy. The government responded by closing existing nuclear power plants and stopping work on projects underway, continuing to work to the nuclear energy program abroad. The national power company Enel operates seven nuclear reactors in Spain (through Endesa) and four in Slovakia (through Slovenské elektrárne), and in 2005 made an agreement with Électricité de France for a nuclear reactor in France. With these agreements, Italy has managed to access nuclear power and direct involvement in design, construction, and operation of the plants without placing reactors on Italian territory.
In the last decade, Italy has become one of the world’s largest producers of renewable energy, ranking as the second largest producer in the European Union after Germany and the ninth in the world. The country is also the world’s fifth largest producer of energy from solar power. Renewable sources account for the 27.5% of all electricity produced in Italy, with hydro alone reaching 12.6%, followed by solar at 5.7%, wind at 4.1%, bioenergy at 3.5%, and geothermal at 1.6%. The rest of the national demand is covered by fossil fuels (38.2% natural gas, 13% coal, 8.4% oil) and by imports.
Italy was the first country in the world to build motorways, the so-called “autostrade”, reserved for motor vehicles. The Milano-Laghi motorway, connecting Milan to Varese and now parts of the A8 and A9 motorways, was devised by Piero Puricelli, a civil engineer and entrepreneur. He received the first authorization to build a public-utility fast road in 1921, and completed the construction between 1924 and 1926. By the end of the 1930s, over 400 kilometers of multi- and dual-single-lane motorways were constructed throughout Italy, linking cities and rural towns. Today there are 668,721 km of serviceable roads in Italy, including 6,661 km of motorways (mostly toll roads, national and local roads), state-owned but privately operated mainly by Atlantia company.
The railway network is also extensive, especially in the north, totalizing 16,862 km of which 69% are electrified and on which 4,937 locomotives and railcars circulate. It is the 12th largest in the world, and is operated by state-owned Ferrovie dello Stato, while the rail tracks and infrastructure are managed by Rete Ferroviaria Italiana. While a number of private railroads exist and provide mostly commuter-type services, the national railway also provides sophisticated high-speed rail service that joins the major cities. The Florence–Rome high-speed railway was the first high-speed line opened in Europe when more than half of it opened in 1977. In 1991 the TAV was created for the planning and construction of high-speed rail lines along Italy’s most important and saturated transport routes (Milan-Rome-Naples and Turin-Milan-Venice). High-speed trains include ETR-class trains, with the Frecciarossa 1000 reaching 400 km/h.
There are approximately 130 airports in Italy, of which 99 have paved runways (including the two hubs of Leonardo Da Vinci International in Rome and Malpensa International in Milan), and 43 major seaports including the Port of Genoa, the country’s largest and the third busiest by cargo tonnage in the Mediterranean Sea. The national inland waterway network comprises 1,477 km of navigable rivers and channels. In 2007 Italy maintained a civilian air fleet of about 389,000 units and a merchant fleet of 581 ships.
In 2015, poverty in Italy hit the high levels in the previous 10 years. The level of absolute poverty for a 2 people family was €1050.95/month. The poverty line per capita changed by region from €552.39/month to €819.13/month.The numbers of those in absolute poverty rose nearly an entire percent in 2015, from 6.8% in 2014, to 7.6% in 2015. In the south of Italy the numbers are even higher with 10% living in absolute poverty, up from 9 percent in 2014. The north is better off at 6.7%, but still an increase from 5.7% in 2014. The national statics reporting agency, ISTAT, defines absolute poverty as those who can’t buy goods and services which they need to survive. In 2015, the proportion of poor households in relative poverty also increased in 2015 to 13.7 from 12.9 in 2014. ISTAT defines relative poverty as people whose disposable income is less than around half the national average. The unemployment rate in February 2016 remained at 11.7%, which has been the same for almost a year, but even having a job doesn’t guarantee freedom from poverty. Those who have at least one family employed still suffer from 6.1% to 11.7% poverty, the higher number being for those who have factory jobs. The numbers are even higher for the younger generations because their unemployment rate is over 40%. Also, children are hit hard. In 2014, 32% of those aged 0–17 are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, which is one child out of three. In the last ISTAT report poverty is in decline.