Firm grounds for optimism clouded by fears of old: this was the sentiment most repeated throughout the debate at the third “Italy meets the United States of America” Summit in New York, with this year’s edition entitled “Italy: we are open for business”. The event, organized by the Italian Business & Investment Initiative, Aspen Institute Italia, and the Council for Relations between Italy and the United States, was aimed at illustrating to US investors the opportunities offered by Italy for incoming and outgoing investment.
The investor impression of Italy which emerged was no longer simply one of pessimism and cynicism, or of a country wrapped up in itself and bereft of enthusiasm. Rather, there has been a shift in the perception of American investors, whose interest has been primarily aroused by the progress being made on reforms underway in Italy, giving rise to a positive albeit cautious outlook. It was felt that the Italian economic environment offers new investment opportunities in sectors of excellence, especially in certain niche areas within which medium-sized hi-tech firms operate, and hence not just in food, fashion and design. The Italian market was perceived as a font of opportunity, thanks especially to the boon represented by its SMEs, the cornerstone of the national economy. Indeed, despite their difficulties, chief among which are problems with governance following the handover from one generation to the next, Italian SMEs – especially hi-tech firms – are attracting great interest.
It was conceded, however, that several sticking points of the Italian market persist, namely: a sluggish bureaucracy, a justice system that is cumbersome and in some cases lacking in legal certainty, arbitration costs that remain very high, and a complex and punitive tax system. American participants also bemoaned the fact that the insolvency of a firm is governed by a different and complex legislative regime compared to that in the US, the divergence in approach stemming from both cultural and regulatory factors, and that Italian insolvency law therefore does not facilitate investment. Lastly, American investors also pointed to the shortcomings of the Italian banking system.
At the same time, it was recognized that, in an economic climate which is picking up again, the US market also presents risks and benefits for the Italian investor. Even so, there are many opportunities on offer, and it is for this reason that financial and logistical support to Italian firms which choose to invest in the US market has been stepped up.
There was thus a perceived need for complementary efforts that would enable the relationship between the two countries to also translate into cultural understanding, so as to overcome issues such as the lack of “patience” lamented by the Italians present, and the difficulty expressed by the Americans in attendance in comprehending the lack of transparency and the dearth of marketing savvy exhibited by small and medium-sized Italian firms.
During the debate, the experiences of several large Italian concerns that have become global corporations were also presented. Attention was drawn to FCA’s excellent performance in the US market, a fact now so taken as read that the company’s future strategy envisages a large-scale “assault” on the European market. This – it was suggested – will not be an easy undertaking. Even the massive global energy company Enel bemoaned the absence of a consistent energy policy at European level, which lacks a harmonized regulatory environment that would enable long-term investment forecasts to be made. Of interest too were the experiences related by Italy’s postal provider Poste Italiane, which is working on selling off a 40% non-controlling stake in the company, partly made possible by the diversification strategy it has pursued in recent years in the area of insurance and banking services.
Special attention was also devoted to the ongoing talks between the US and Europe for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The US administration attaches great importance to the negotiations, while from the European side, the outlook – despite the difficulties – also remains positive.
Hence, in the final analysis, the sense that emerged from the Summit was one of optimism for the future. The current situation was characterized as definitely better than that in previous months, when a collapse of the euro and a serious institutional crisis in Brussels were conjectured. In conclusion, it was remarked that, as things currently stand, the system could withstand even a possible – albeit unwished-for – Greek exit from the eurozone.