SESSION 16. A tale of two globalisations: Multinationals and transnational companies in the Italian insurance market, 1870-1980

16. A tale of two globalisations: Multinationals and transnational companies in the Italian insurance market, 1870-1980.

Giandomenico Piluso (University of Siena). giandomenico.piluso@unisi.it


The Italian insurance market has traditionally shown a clear-cut polarisation both as to standing and size of its companies. In fact, on the one side, from the mid-19th century it represented a relatively backward market, slowly evolving as the haphazard result of slow integration processes of local and regional markets in which small- to medium-sized companies predominantly operated. Yet, on the other side, European multinationals entered the richest markets of the country, especially in the North-West, whilst two major transnational companies, Assicurazioni Generali (Trieste and Venice) and Riunione Adriatica di Sicurtà (RAS) (Trieste and Milan), successfully established their respective multinational networks both in Italy and Europe by the First World War. The former side of the story suggests a strong correlation between modest income per capita levels and underinsured markets, largely protected from competition, captured by less efficient firms. The latter side suggests a tale of two forms of multinationalisation: foreign multinationals entering, or leaving, the Italian market according to a changing regulatory framework and transnational companies constituting the most dynamic component within the domestic market. Such strategies were alternately implemented throughout the two globalisations responding to market stimuli and geopolitical forces as well. In fact, geopolitical forces and backlash to globalisation played a major role in shaping strategies and capital/investment flows, not to say timing of technology transfers from more sophisticated players and markets.

The proposed session will focus on this dynamic component of the Italian insurance market relying upon first-hand research on the archives of Assicurazioni Generali and RAS and emphasising the far-reaching European network built up from the mid-19th century. Both Generali and RAS, established in Trieste in 1831 and 1838 respectively, adopted the public limited company structure and an innovative business model (all-risk insurance). Their organisational structure was peculiar because of its transnational organisational structure centred upon Trieste and Venice, the former under the Austrian Empire until 1919, for Generali and Trieste and Milan for RAS. Up to the late 1940s the multinational strategies pursued by Generali and RAS largely depended on the very specific array of human capital, network relations and core capabilities constituted by the multiethnic and -religious profile typical of Trieste as an international trading emporium. Under such circumstances, in the late 19th century emerged outstanding managers whose business competence and expertise proved to be crucial in their ascending to top positions allowing both Generali and RAS to be at the forefront of the insurance industry on a global scale, even contributing to define its technical and managerial standards. Thus, by the eve of the Great War Generali and RAS had established a string of successful subsidiaries and companies throughout Europe, critically depending on a variant of internationalism and unrestricted capital mobility as well as moderate State welfare intervention. The end of the first globalisation deeply altered and eventually disrupted the essential conditions of success of such an idiosyncratic organizational model and ownership structure, whilst these companies had to face mounting nationalism, restricting regulation and State intervention in welfare provision. In Italy in the 1920s such tendencies were embodied in the expansion of public expenditure and in the State-owned insurance company Istituto Nazionale delle Assicurazioni (INA), a competitor in the domestic market. In the interwar years, as the most internationalised Italian insurers, these companies had to face all the difficulties arising from financial instability and geopolitical turmoil, both at home and abroad. After the post-WWII recovery, their management resumed the long-standing multinational strategies by reorganising operational structures and business divisions of their respective networks of subsidiaries and companies in Western Europe and liquidating their interests behind the Iron Curtain. In a changing insurance market, from nuclear risks to other great risks, Generali and RAS extended their networks to American and extra-European markets emerging as relevant players within the insurance sector at least on a European scale.

The second aim of the session is proposing a reconstruction of multinational insurers operating in the Italian market in the long run, since mid-19the century. Foreign insurance companies entered the Italian market in the mid-19th century and had to cope with an increasingly restrictive regulation from the early 1920 to the 1970s. As a result their presence was relatively volatile from the early 1920s. Their relative ability to conquer and control market shares largely depended on regulation and, secondarily, market dynamics. As for the two largest Italian insurers, on the whole, the success of foreign companies depended upon regulatory intervention and geopolitical conditions. Those conditions amply oscillated over time following rhythm and direction in a way imposed by, or related to, the two globalisations.

Main objectives

The main objective of the proposed session is to provide an opportunity to present and discuss a research conducted on the archives of the major insurance companies by Giulio Mellinato, Anna Millo and Giandomenico Piluso. The session will present main its empirical results emphasizing long-term characteristics of the Italian insurance market as well as of the two major companies, Generali and RAS. The multinational trajectories of the major Italian insurers appear tightly connected to a specific genetic process stemming out from the international trading emporium of Trieste and its as much specific multi-ethnic networks that proved to be pivotal in assuring an adequate social and human capital, outward-looking strategies and technical competencies. The international conference in Seville will provide the right context in order to favour comparisons and attract potential participants, both from Italy and from main countries in which operated Italian companies and from which came foreign multinationals operating in Italy. It is expected also to offer a stimulating discussion and precise criticisms that will contribute to give a convenient shape to a publication proposal to be submitted to an international publisher or journal.

The insurance business history – and insurance history in general – is a rather overlooked field of studies in Italy and the Conference may represent an important opportunity to stimulate and gather scholars fostering future research on the evolution of the insurance industry in the Peninsula by adopting a broader and comparative approach.