SMEs rival in EU exports beyond all expectations

New factors on the international scene, such as the speed of entering a market and innovation, impact on exports regardless of the size of the companies.

SMEs are the driving force behind the Italian economy and are an unparalleled phenomenon in terms of the importance of exports between European countries, including Germany.

In the past, the export vocation of Italian small and medium-sized enterprises has been considered an anomaly to be avoided. Today, other factors emerge on the international scene, such as the speed of entering a market and innovation, which can have a positive impact on exports regardless of the size of the companies.

To better understand the peculiarities of Italian exports, the comparison between the Italian and German manufacturing system was highlighted. Overall, the macro-manufacturing sector is the most representative area of the potential of Italian SMEs in international markets. This macro-sector recorded, out of the total revenues realized by Italian companies on foreign markets, an 84% share in 2018 (the last year currently available), as well as a significant propensity to export – calculated as the ratio of foreign turnover in the sale of goods to the total turnover of companies – equal to 44%.

As can be seen from the graph, in 2018 Italy placed itself on the podium of the largest European exporters in this macro-sector, for an exported total of 362 billion euros; It is, therefore, second only to Germany, which, with EUR 897 billion in exports, is close to tripling the target reached by Italian companies. They are followed by France and, at a clear distance, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
Italy and Germany, therefore, emerge as the most export-rated European countries, despite the presence of a considerable gap between the two in terms of the order of magnitude of exports. A comparison in terms of the size of the companies present in the territories of the two countries can help to understand the reasons for this disparity.

The data collected on Italian and German exports, sourced from Eurostat and referring to 2018, have been grouped into four classes to divide the different exporting companies according to the number of employees (Classes of employees):

  • Micro enterprises: less than 10 employees;

  • Small enterprises: between 10 and 49 employees;

  • Medium-sized enterprises: between 50 and 249 employees;

  • Large companies: at least 250 employees.

The dichotomy between Germany and Italy manufacturing system

The graph immediately shows the first dichotomy between the two systems: German exports appear more concentrated in the size class composed of large companies, while the Italian one appears more distributed among the various size classes, with a weight of large manufacturing companies of little greater than the others.

In this context, the role of Italian small and medium-sized enterprises is particularly strategic: in classes 10-49 and 50-249 employees, national manufacturing companies perform better than their direct German competitors, with an export value of 52 and 112 billion euros respectively in 2018, compared to 24 and 98 billion respectively recorded by German companies of the same size classes.