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Antitrust: How to overcome “relationship capitalism” for market growth and the promotion of merit

“”Relationship capitalism” is damaging the most vital, most competitive part of Italy’s economy [and promotes] unproductive, inefficient public spending [often aimed at] satisfying the specific interests of lobbies and rent-seekers”. In other words, it is holding back balanced growth for the nation as a whole and is to be stopped through policy decisions and reforms that focus on competitiveness, productivity, and sound culture of enterprise for an open, transparent, well-regulated and well-controlled market. This harsh assessment of the damage being done by “relationship capitalism” comes from an authoritative source, Prof. Giovanni Pitruzzella, president of the Italian antitrust authority and expert in constitutional law, a man who studies carefully the economic aspects of government policy and legislation, and it can be found in the annual report that the antitrust authority presented to the other institutional authorities and to the world’s economic and political leaders (on 30 June of this year).

Pitruzzella points the finger – and rightly so – at a series of unwritten, yet well-established rules “based on privilege, rather than on merit [that] heighten inequality, make society closed, static, and not open enough to competition and innovation” and focuses on the defects created by a perverse web of guilds made up of (state and local) bureaucracies and of corporations averse to competition, of backchannel relations mired in bribery and the exchange of favours, and of market distortion in the name of the clientelism (with all of the consequences in terms of the dramatic rise of the influence of organised crime not only in areas where it has traditionally been strong, but even in the richer regions of northern Italy). This statement of Pitruzzella’s is dense with ethical and political importance. It emphasises issues of lawfulness (which have, for some time now, been growing in importance for business leaders and industry confederations and organisations, from Confindustria and Assolombarda to their counterparts in the Veneto and Piedmont regions), but also points the spotlight at the issue of Italy’s efficiency, productivity and competitiveness, which this “relationship capitalism” both hinders and distorts.

There was a long period in the history of the Italian economy that was governed by the rules of “inner-circle capitalism”, characterised by privileged relationships between major corporations and the financial system, all under the umbrella of Enrico Cuccia’s Mediobanca, a network of intertwined relations backed by “shareholder agreements” that was essentially conservative and fairly closed to the more vibrant dynamics of the stock market and of the marketplace. This network served to protect the best of private-sector capitalism from the incursion of the worst of Italian politics (and from the attacks of market speculators much like Sindona, serving as a front for organised crime).

This, too, was also referred to as “relationship capitalism”, but this, compared to the analysis of Pitruzzella, had features that were quite different. (To get a better idea, one might read a couple of recently published books, such as Cuccia e il segreto di Mediobanca, written by Giorgio La Malfa and published in Italian by Feltrinelli, or Promemoria d’un banchiere d’affari, which is an interesting collection of writings by Cuccia – edited by Sandro Gerbi and Giandomenico Piluso and published in Italian by Aragno – which provide a detailed and, at times, original reconstruction of the role played by Mediobanca in the second half of the twentieth century in Italy and which shed much light and cast a few shadows on the system in particular.) It was a protective capitalism ruled by a strong man of the utmost integrity. It may have been adverse to transparency and to the market, but it did have a system of sanctions and of merit. It was a system made strong through its autonomy, both from politics and from the worst of the freewheeling temptations of the companies themselves, and it was, nonetheless, a form of capitalism that was already in crisis in the 1990s before definitively fading away. (It would be interesting for historians to eventually attempt to provide a serious, unbiased account of those times.) Goodbye, shareholder agreements. It was time to learn to be a part of the market and, even better, of the markets of international competition.

The “relationship capitalism” of which Pitruzzella speaks is something entirely different, something to be combatted and overcome. How exactly? Through greater commitment to privatisation and liberalisation, so as not to replace public monopolies with private-sector ones and in order to bring an end to a sort of “municipalistic capitalism” of the local public enterprises, as well as through the coherent efforts of the antitrust authority, which has been, as Pitruzzella put it, “focusing on those areas in which relationship capitalism is strongest and in which proper competition could provide a push towards competitiveness and growth”, areas such as energy, transportation, services, digital communications, online commerce, and financial services, which are the same as those on which the European Commission is focusing.

There’s a lot of work to be done, but it is possible. Less bureaucracy, fewer guilds, less clientelism, more market and, therefore, more development. Honest businesses and an Italy looking to grow will all be grateful.