Mario Draghi: The silver lining in his departure

Most reasonable international observers were mystified by the circumstances that led to the end of the Draghi government. Having achieved so much in only eighteen months, and with only 9 months to the natural end of the legislature, one cannot help but wonder why the Italian parties and parliament have decided to vote against the will of the majority of Italians, not to mention Western leaders, to cut short this incredible government. During the last 552 days, Mario Draghi, Italy’s thirtieth Prime Minister since World War II has achieved targets that have eluded most of his predecessors:

– He was instrumental in the implementation for Italy of the European Recovery plan, which awarded Italy one of the largest allocations in Europe, in return for a package of reforms;

– All the required reforms were delivered on time until now;

– These actions have initiated a virtuous circle of investment and increases in productivity that will last a generation;

– He presided over a 6.6% rise in GDP, among the best results in Europe after the Covid recession;

– This helped to reduce the widely watched Debt/GDP ratio by 4.5%;

– He was easily the most respected Italian leader of the last forty years, responsible for coordinating the West’s response to Russia’s aggression, and visibly part of Europe’s top leadership together with France and Germany;

– He quickly acted to replace Italy’s dependence on Russian gas by striking deals with north African and middle eastern countries.

But the list of necessary reforms is not finished. Draghi wanted to complete his tenure by also achieving long lasting changes to increase competition, restructure the Tax Code, and make welfare payments more efficient. Had Draghi not resigned, most of these reforms would have been part of the 2023 Budget, but achieving them on the eve of the national election campaign would not have been easy.

The decision is now going to go back, democratically, to the voters. If the ‘Draghi effect’ continues, his Agenda will be adopted by a government that will have the votes in parliament to back a decisive 2023 budget without having to worry about elections on the horizon. With the populist left in shambles, the risk is now that the populist right will win the elections and seek to undo Draghi’s work. But the fact that most of the parties that caused the fall of his government have already splintered into groups that have committed to back the Draghi agenda, gives cause for cautious optimism that the foundations he laid in the last 18 months will constitute a structural change in the Italian economy that will last for decades to come.

Italy’s revival despite its moribund airline…

Italy has generally taken good advantage from the Covid-19 tourism hiatus, to develop new world class hotels, refurbish aged ones, build new airport terminals and more. Milan’s city airport Linate has been upgraded and it is a pleasure to spend some time in it between flights. Rome’s Fiumicino airport has become a world class hub with state-of-the-art facilities, full wall LCD screens everywhere, tasteful design, real high-quality malls with the best global designers and brands. In short, an apt window into what Italy is best at, design, fashion, and good taste.

Rome’s aging hotel stock is also being upgraded and complemented with global and local brands which are attracting well-heeled tourists from around the world. This is in addition to a reborn short-term letting industry which has suffered during the pandemic but seems to be emerging stronger than ever. Away from Rome and Milan, “new” beautiful tourist destinations have also gone international, imagine places such as Puglia and Forte dei Marmi, which were traditionally domestic destinations, and are now boasting world class hotels with an increasingly jet setting international clientele.

The remaining black mark for Italy is unfortunately in its national visiting card—its flag airline, Ita Airways (PKA Alitalia). Despite uncounted billions of euros of government investment during the last two decades, Alitalia was always on the brink financially, and barely acceptable from a passenger experience point of view. Last year, after the umpteenth auction to sell it to private equity or to a global competitor failed, the state was forced to buy it and recapitalise it by letting Alitalia close down and setting up a ‘new Alitalia’, Ita Airways that effectively acquired its planes, slots, and most of its employees. Nine months into the process, very little seems to have changed, starting from the planes, most of which are still painted Alitalia, even though there is a growing number that have been repainted with Ita’s livery at a cost of $50,000 a plane. Aside from this, the airline is setting new lows for client service. To get a glimpse you can check online reviews, which give it an average of 2/5 on most categories.

While nations can thrive without a national carrier, one would think that if you have one, it has to adequately represent its host nation. Emirates had a big role in promoting Dubai as both a hub and a destination in its own right. Alitalia/Ita is today a poor window into an Italy that is turning around, a mediocre low-cost carrier with a major airline ambition and cost base. On a recent trip in business class, I was one of three passengers in a class that can carry 16, and the reasons are obvious… the seat configuration, not to speak of the service are simply inadmissible in today’s competitive marketplace.

The airline seems to be up for sale again…Let’s hope that it can find a suitable buyer that will either upgrade it to a national pride or downgrade it to an efficient low cost. The middle seat is untenable as well as uncomfortable.

The Vaccine Saga

Italy is a country historically rife with conspiracy theories.

In the past, they have ranged from who were the political backers of the Red Brigades (the Americans or the Russians?), to why Juventus wins so many championships (the Agnellis control everything), to how gnomes in New York play with Italian politics by ‘adjusting’ the BTP/Bund spread. There are many more examples.

Today, the mother of all conspiracies is why Italy is not getting enough people vaccinated. The argument goes that other non-European countries are somehow deviating Italy’s supplies of vaccine. The reality is that Italy is suffering the results of the incapacity of the EU to manage the centralised purchase of the vaccines for hundreds of millions of Europeans at the same time. The EU is an institution that is quite good at putting on the brakes, not at swiftly making things happen. The EU’s executive is appointed and not elected. Its appointers are not looking for charismatic leaders that could eclipse them, they are rather looking for dependable administrators who will follow the protocols. The problem is that the EU had no experience in negotiating purchase agreements of this size and in order to ensure it be seen to do the right thing, it wasted precious time in negotiating with a fine tooth comb and arguing for better prices. The problem is that it didn’t recognise that there are times when price is irrelevant and redundancy crucial. Israel and the UK understood much earlier that it doesn’t matter if you pay $30 (apparently what Israel agreed to pay) for a vaccine or around $10, like the EU did. Every extra week of lockdown is worth a lot more than a few dollars of savings, especially in the midst of a pandemic.

Mario Draghi is credited for having saved Italy and the EU in the midst of the financial crisis. He will now have to apply his ‘we will do whatever it takes’ modus operandi to independently acquire vaccines if he wants to prevent League leader Salvini and his Fratelli d’Italia colleague from running on a very popular vaccine-denial, anti Europe platform in the near future.

Learning the lessons?

This week marks the approximate anniversary of the arrival of the Covid pandemic in mainland Europe. It is notable that while certain towns and regions in Italy were already in lockdown mode at this time last year, other countries such as the United States seemed to be immune until March. On this day last year, we were in Florida where everything was open and masks were unheard of. Meanwhile, Italy was already testing the body temperature of arrivals at airports, and beginning to curtail flights from China.

In the UK it was still more or less business as usual. In fact you may argue that it has taken the UK twelve months to get a hold on its borders, as the harshest measures have only been introduced in February….. 2021!

Consider the difference. Granted that we are worried about mutant viruses, but as of today, the UK has administered over 18m doses of vaccine; if you take into consideration the subjects who are somehow immune, or protected, because they had the virus already, and children who don’t seem to get sick, we are now getting close to 50% of the population being vaccinated or immune. In addition, one year ago, the UK had no real testing capacity. Today they are doing many hundreds of thousands of tests per day.

One would have thought that the borders should have been closed (especially to China) when the disease was difficult to diagnose (for lack of testing capacity) and non-curable/preventable (no vaccines and no effective therapy), and that the restrictions should be relaxed now that the combination of cheaply available testing and vaccines are an effective barrier to contagion. True, it is not proven that vaccination means non transmission. It is also true that testing (especially rapid testing) may not be exact; however, public policy in almost every field aims to minimise and not eliminate problems and to balance prevention with the negative effects of limitation of liberties, commerce, travel etc. No government gives its citizens a guarantee that the streets will be 100% safe from crime. Covid prevention should also fall into the minimisation rather than elimination, bucket.

From Mario to Mario… there was none like Mario

When in 2011, the then President Napolitano asked Mario Monti to form a new government of technocrats, Italy wasn’t very far from its own version of a financial crisis. Credibility in Europe and in the financial markets was near record lows, and the new Prime Minister assumed his role by promising an economic version of “blood, sweat and tears.” His job was to cut costs, increase taxes, reduce the budget deficit and therefore resume Italy’s access to financial markets, a very delicate matter for a country with one of the highest Debt/GDP ratios. Professor Monti succeeded to a certain extent, but his government only lasted two year. By that time his political capital was eroded by having to administer such bitter medicine.

Roughly ten years later, President Mattarella gave his approval a few days ago to another professor, another Mario, the Central Banker emeritus Mario Draghi. While certain circumstances are similar, their mandate couldn’t be more different. Whereas Monti had to cut the budget deficit and start reducing the national debt, as a proportion of GDP, Mario Draghi’s mandate is twofold. He will need to ensure that Italy gets its full allocation of the recovery moneys, which have already been generously earmarked for Italy, and even more importantly, he will have to ensure that those funds are spent well, so that from the ashes of the crisis, Italy can find its renaissance. Both Marios’ jobs were and will be challenging, but the big difference is that Draghi will put money in people’s pockets, whereas Monti had to do the opposite. If Italy ever had a chance to emerge from nearly two decades of stagnation, Mr. Draghi is its best chance.

Mr. Monti’s political career ended quickly with a failed election and he soon returned to academia. Mr. Draghi probably has no intentions at all to stay in politics. He has a mission to do, and he has the skills and the credibility to get it done in the two years before Italy’s next general election.