Saturday, June 9, 2012

Tax evasion eating into Italian GDP

More than a quarter of the Italian economy eludes taxation, due to underground and criminal economic activities that push up borrowing costs and discourage investment in the country's most vulnerable regions, a senior Bank of Italy official said Wednesday.

"Knowing an enemy's size and potential to create damage is essential in defining a winning strategy," Anna Tarantola, deputy director-general of the central bank, told the parliamentary anti-mafia committee in Rome.

Her estimate that 27.4% of gross domestic product in the euro zone's third-largest economy is off the books comes at a time when authorities in the region are contemplating steps toward a fiscal union. Italian government officials say they are often reminded by their German counterparts that mutualizing obligations is a political non-starter if burdens aren't properly shouldered.

Late last month the European Commission pressed Italy to take "further determined action" to tackle the scourge of tax evasion. Prime Minister Mario Monti vowed a "tougher stance in the future" on tax dodgers in an interview to Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana.

Ms Tarantola cited a Bank of Italy study estimating that 16.5% of Italian GDP was underground and another 10.9% of GDP consisted of criminal activity such as prostitution and drugs.

If the state levied revenue on more than EUR400 billion in unrecorded activity at the 45% tax rate applied to the economy at large, Italy could eliminate its EUR2 trillion in public debt in less than a decade, or halve it to the critical 60%-of-GDP level by 2017.

Italy's heavy sovereign debt load is now 120% of GDP, the same as 20 years ago, even though successive governments have spent more than EUR500 billion less on providing public services than they have taken in taxes over that time, amassing primary budget surpluses more than twice as large as those of larger Germany, said Marco Fortis, an economist at the Milan-based Edison Foundation.

Monti has raised taxes and promised to curb public spending further in an effort to build up Italy's primary budget surplus--a measure that excludes interest payments on outstanding public debt--to above 5% of GDP from around zero in 2011. "That's just inevitable for countries with our kind of large debt load," he said at a recent conference in Florence.

However, the tax-centered fiscal tightening he approved in an emergency budget law shortly after replacing Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister and forming a national emergency government late last year is cramping an already weak economy. Italian GDP is now in its fourth consecutive quarterly contraction, the jobless rate rose in April to an all-time high of 10.2% and the government on Tuesday played down data that suggested tax receipts are behind schedule.

Some Italians, especially labor unions representing workers who are taxed even before they get paid, have called on the government to overhaul its strategy. They have suggested, for example, bigger penalties for tax evasion and introduction of a wealth tax. Tax evasion has helped give Italians an average household wealth eight times greater than disposable income, according to the central bank, a higher level than in Germany, France or the U.S.

Enrico Giovannini, president of the national statistics institute Istat, notes that at 17% of GDP, tax evasion accounts for a third of all private economic activity.

"Tax evasion is a plague," Audit Court President Luigi Giampaolino intoned in his annual report to lawmakers on Tuesday.

Ms Tarantola said the underground economy is also hindering business growth and investment, citing a central bank review of 170,000 companies and 839 banks that found companies pay higher interest rates on loans in areas of the country where fraud is more concentrated. Moreover, those companies are required to offer more collateral to obtain loans and tend to be offered only lines of credit on terms that allow for easy and quick recall, rather than longer-term loans designed to be repaid from the cash flow the funding helps generate, she said.

Banks should pay closer attention to borrowers' balance sheets for signs of criminal infiltration, she said, adding that the state's pilot program of using only designated and monitored bank accounts for all payments related to execution of public works has shown some success.

While local stereotypes suggest tax evasion is particularly rife in southern Italy--where Istat says only 43.3% of adults hold formal jobs--more detailed studies show that the size of both the underground and criminal economies is larger in northern Italian provinces than southern ones, Ms Tarantola said.

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