Image: Flickr
Image: Flickr

Marco Polo is one of history’s greatest explorers. Had the Italian been alive today, he might be searching for his native country’s economy. 

Whereas the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects the eurozone’s individual economies to be 20-25% larger than pre-crisis levels of 2008 by the mid 2020s, Italy’s is expected to gasp for air as it finally resurfaces from the depths Mediterranean Sea.

The IMF forecasts that by the mid 2020s, Italy’s economy will have just grown to the size it was before the financial crisis – meaning “two lost decades” of economic growth.

It still stands around 8% smaller than when the crisis struck. In fact, the Italian economy is roughly the size it was at the turn of the century.

For the foreseeable future, the Italian economy is expected to struggle. Having forecast growth of 1.1% in 2016, the IMF now expects less than 1%. And 2017 will only see a minor improvement at 1%, although below initial expectations of 1.25%.

The world’s eyes were focused on Greece for much of 2015 – questioning whether it would agree a mutli-billion bailout package, or default on its debts and be forced to leave the EU. But Italy’s debt is second only to Greece in the eurozone. Banks are crippled and 11% of the adult population is unemployed.

Italian banks are lumbered with around €360 billion worth of bad debt – loans that are unlikely to ever be paid in full. That is equivalent to around a fifth of the country’s entire economy.

“Fragile and prolonged” is how the IMF described Italy’s path to economic recovery, stressing that authorities face a “monumental challenge”.

The organisation added: “The recovery needs to be strengthened to reduce high unemployment faster and buffers need to be built, including by repairing strained bank balance sheets and decisively lowering the very high public debt.”

Michael Baxter, economics writer, author and entrepreneur, said: “These days, when we think of Marco Polo, many of us think of TV series on Netflix. But there is a fear that the great technological revolution typified by the likes of Netflix may pass Italy by unless it can solve the challenges faced by its banks. But can Italy afford to bail out its banks? It may be tempted to just let them fail, but history recalls that when banks do indeed fail, then what then follows can be years of economic malaise.

“It would benefit from a cheaper currency relative to its main trading partners. But its main trading partners typically use the same currency, the euro. So this may be a problem for the euro area, not just Italy, and unless fellow euro countries accept this, then Italy may suffer from a lost decade, or two.”