In 1861 Italy was not yet an industrialized country. The country was prevalently agricultural and the earliest years of Italy as a unified country were marked by very slow growth of the GDP. Modern economic development, as defined by Simon Kuznets, began between 1897-1913, in what has been described by Giorgio Fuà as the «Giolitti period». It was during this time that Italian industry really began to take off and become an effective player in foreign trade with its industrial products. According to the historical figures analyzed by Fuà, in the decade 1881-1891, Italian exports consisted of food products for 34%, raw materials other than food for 15%, and intermediate products for 37%. Finished products accounted for only 14% of our exports. In 1911-1920, after the country industrialized, the structure of Italian exports had changed considerably. Exports of food products were down to 22% while the proportion of finished products to total exports had increased to 37%.
The Fascist period was characterized by a relative stagnation of the export structure, with finished products other than food struggling to grow. It was not until after World War II that Italy made the great leap of specialization toward finished products other than food, that in the five-year period 1966-70, which is the last period analyzed by Fuà, would reach 72% of the total of its exports.
Except for a few brief periods, Italy has always been characterized by a slight structural deficit of its trade balance. In certain periods this deficit depended on liabilities in the agri-food sector, while in others, such as the present, it was caused mainly by the so-called «energy bill». But the country's trade balance for industrial products, except in the «Giolitti period» mentioned above, has always been positive, especially since the war and particularly after the Sixties.
Let us briefly summarize some of the events in Italy's export history, using U.N. and W.T.O. statistics. In 1900 Italy was in fifth place in the G-7 for industrial exports, ahead of Japan and Canada. But Italian industrial exports still only totaled a quarter of the value of those of the U.S. and France, barely 1/8 of that of Germany and about 1/11 of that of Great Britain. From 1900 to 1938 Great Britain led the world in industrial exports, followed by Germany and the United States. Though America was starting to emerge as a new power, it was less export-oriented than Great Britain and Germany, because the engine of America was its dynamic domestic market. Italy stayed in fifth place in exports of industrial products in 1913 and 1928 then dropped to seventh place in 1938 behind not only Japan, but also Canada. In the meantime, however, the ratio between British/German exports and Italian exports decreased to about 6:1.
After World War II, the U.S. took the leadership in industrial exports in 1950 and 1960, after which Germany took the lead from 1970 on, with only a short pause in 2000, when the statistics were affected by the temporary greater strength of the dollar over the euro. From 1950 to 1980 Italy held onto sixth place in exports of manufactured goods in the G7. Its ratio with the exports of the leading G7 country was down to about 1:3 after 1970.
After the «economic boom», that ended with the recession of 1964-65, Italian industries that, during the years of the «miracle» had focused largely on the domestic market, began to consider foreign markets as opportunities for growth. That was when many Italian classics like apparel, footwear, furniture, ceramic tiles, taps and fittings, industrial machines, appliances, etc. really experienced a breakthrough, and the "Made in Italy" label became a status symbol. In the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties the role of the industrial clusters gained strength and they became important vehicles for the development of exports.
Italy's greatest international success was in three important sectors: food, apparel and home furnishings, but it also became one of the leading exporters in the mechanical sector, alongside Germany, Japan and the U.S. In 1990, Italy's industrial exports exceeded those of Great Britain, which took the lead again in 2000. The race is still on, however, and in 2009 Italy was ahead of the British once again, and with a much stronger lead. In the last 15 years, the new Asian competition began to encroach gradually on Italy's market shares in products with lower added value, in the fashion and furnishing sectors, and the country reacted by focusing on products with higher added value in the sectors of products for the person and the home, as well as by diversifying more and more into non-electronic mechanical products and means of transportation other than automobiles (luxury yachts, cruise ships, helicopters). Expanding the horizon to the G20 countries and considering the classifications of the main industrial exporters of that group, we find Italy in sixth place in 1980, fifth in 1990, seventh in 2000 and sixth in 2009. But Italy's sixth place in 2009 was much more significant than its sixth place in 1980, because now it had China ahead of it, which wasn't there before. Between 2000 and 2009 China went from sixth to first place in industrial exports in the world.
But export data are not all it takes to position Italy among the leading industrial economies. We have to look at the trade balance too (the difference between exports and imports) to have a clearer idea of which countries are net industrial exporters. In this category, Italy was third among the G20 countries in 1980 and 1990, fourth in 2000 and fifth in 2009. Between 1980 and 1990 the entire classification was in turmoil. The United States, after being net exporters of industrial products (fourth after Japan, Germany and Italy) became net importers, falling to last place in the G20 classification. Even Great Britain went from a net exporter to a net importer.
This reflects the gradual deindustrialization of these economies in favor of services, and the beginning of processes of delocalization and outsourcing. While Japan, Germany and Italy still maintain the first three places in the classification of net exporters. Between 1990 and 2000, South Korea gained importance as a net exporter of industrial products, overtaking Italy and reaching third place. China's role also increased enormously as it rose to fifth place, practically neck and neck with Italy, which edged ahead by just a few million dollars. The deficits of the U.S. and Great Britain were expanding. The statistics relative to 2009 illustrates the immense leap of China, that became the number one net industrial export power in the world, well ahead of Germany in second place and Japan in third. Italy was in fifth place but still firmly anchored in the shrinking group of net exporters of industrial products.In 2011, the "Made in Italy" label will celebrate its 150th anniversary: globalization has made competition harsher and more difficult but Italy intends to continue to play its role.