Super Mario?

The FT seems to have fallen in love with Mario Monti since being granted an exclusive interview with him last week. The paper’s correspondents have both hailed a package of Monti reform measures, and asserted that Monti is making Italy’s path diverge from that of Greece.

This is premature. Much of the FT coverage has highlighted moves to end legislated rents enjoyed by groups like lawyers, notaries, geometras, and pharmacists. In reality, the biggest of these rents have been abolished already, while long-run economic weakness has forced professionals to give up many of their remaining minimum charges. Notaries could be squeezed further, but their last really juicy rent — the requirement to use a notary every time you buy or sell a car –went years ago. Lawyers and geometras were long since forced by the weight of their numbers and the weakness of the economy to either dispense with official fee schedules altogether or to operate at the bottom end of them. There is such a ridiculous number of lawyers, accountants and geometras in Italy that they have to bid each other down. The nominal level of professional fees in Italy is not the real problem.

What has destroyed the Italian economy is transaction costs — the nominal fee plus the time-and-aggravation cost of getting anything done. The Euro7,000 charge for our leaking roof case would have been unreasonable but for the fact the case took seven years for the magistrate NOT to reach a decision. Italy requires systemic change to create institutions that allow the economy to be more efficient.

The biggest necessary change is a functioning legal system. Monti has offered nothing on this front, save plans for a special business court to try to encourage foreign direct investment. This is a remarkably third-worldy as a policy proposal. It is reminiscent of when a country like China sets up a ‘one-stop’ investment office for multinational companies or agrees to abide by international arbitration decisions in business cases. That kind of thing works for emerging economies if they have high growth rates, which are what attract investors. Italy has no growth. If any investors are to become active in the Italian market, foreign or domestic, they require a legal system that works. Mario should get on and propose one.

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