ISTAT released its latest annual report concerning trade and international transactions of Italian companies. The National Institute of Statistics, together with ICE, published a veritable treasure trove of statistics and figures painting a detailed picture of the state of Italy’s exports and imports, foreign investment flows and the characteristics of the companies themselves.
More than one thousand charts complement the brute data on Italian exports in 2021. The total value reached a historic high of 516 billion euros, thanks to an astonishing +18.2% over the previous year. These results are in line with overall trends in the global economy: the pandemic shock of 2020 seems to be over, and Italy vastly outperformed even pre-pandemic indicators. If we do not include energy imports, Italy’s trade balance is positive, amounting to a surplus of 89.3 billion euros.
In 2021, the export of services played a significant role in this exploit (+15.7%), and even foreign investments, which mostly stagnated due to the uncertainty brought by the pandemic, show promising signs of recovery. Italian investments abroad amounted to 14 billion euros, while foreign investments in the country’s economy, even though lower than those recorded over the previous years, still reached a healthy 12 billion.
Italian manufacturing holds the largest share of global exports in a vast array of products, many of them associated with what conventional wisdom thinks to be Italian excellence: food, fashion and furniture. In 2021, leading Italian exports were: terracotta building materials (24.46%); tanned and processed leather goods such as handbags (14.44%); bakery and flour products (13.01%); wrought stones (12.72%); steel pipes, ducts, and cables (10.98%); other leather goods, excluding clothing, (10.70%) and beverages (9.37%).
Of the 136,025 companies selling their products abroad, an overwhelming majority are located in the northern industrial heartland, although nineteen out of twenty regions experienced a growth in exports. In 2021, the top five included Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Piedmont and Tuscany.
If we look at the turnover of these companies, those which benefited the most from this favourable moment were the smallest and the largest ones (under 75,000 euros and above 50 million); the “middle class” still thrived, enjoying a fairer distribution of global market shares. Almost half (47.5%) are geared towards exporting to a single country, while 16.4% are operating in more than ten. 89,320 companies trade with non-EU countries with a healthy mix of partners: most of them are present in the Northern American market (44,559), but East-Asia (39,808) and the Middle East (30,948) are not far behind.
Lifting the words straight out of the report, the presence of Italian subsidiaries abroad is “relevant and geographically distributed”. In 2019, they operated in 174 countries, employing 1.6 million workers with a turnover of 567 billion euros.
Still, what can we say about the findings of this report were we to sum them up? It should be self-evident that whatever damage the pandemic caused to the Italian economy is healed. Companies showed the will to protect their investments and the grit needed to repair the broken-down supply chains stifling trade. These results should not be easily dismissed, especially considering that many of these companies are small enterprises. This is not exactly what we think about when picturing a business weathering a major upheaval in the global economy. If there will be more tests in the future, Italian companies are ready to face them.