Must Germany bail out Portugal too?
by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
Originally published 18 Apr 2010
PORTUGAL, NOT GREECE, POSES THE GREATER EXISTENTIAL THREAT to Europe’s monetary union. The long-drawn saga in Athens can perhaps be deemed a case apart. Greece lied. Its budget deficit was egregious at 16pc of GDP last year on a cash basis. It wasted its EMU windfall, the final chance to bring public debt back from the brink of a compound spiral. You cannot blame the euro for this, although EMU undoubtedly created a risk-free illusion that lured both Athens and creditors deeper into the trap – and now prevents a solution. Nor would an orderly default under IMF guidance along Uruguayan lines necessarily imperil Europe’s banks. The Bundesbank hints that letting Greece go would prove a healthier outcome for EMU in the long run, upholding discipline.
However, Portugal did not cheat (much) and did not start as an arch-debtor. It did mishandle the run-up to EMU in the 1990s, failing to offset a fall in interest rates from 16pc to 3pc with fiscal tightening. Boom-bust ensued. But that was a long time ago. Portugal has since settled down to a decade of sobriety. The reward never came.
Brussels admitted last week that Portugal’s external accounts have switched from credit in the mid-1990s to a deficit of 109pc of GDP. This has been caused by the incentive structures of EMU itself. “The more broadened access to credit induced a significant reduction in the saving rate, while consumption kept growing faster than GDP. This development led to an increase in Portuguese indebtedness,” it said.
The IMF’s January report – worth examining for its horrifying charts – said “The large fiscal and external imbalances that arose from the boom in the run-up to adoption of the euro have not been unwound, resulting in the economy becoming heavily indebted and growing banking system vulnerabilities. The longer the imbalance persists, the greater the risk the adjustment will be sudden and disruptive.” The IMF noted the “heavy reliance” of banks on foreign wholesale funding, equal to 40pc of total assets. Lisbon reacts with outrage to Greek parallels. “Nonsense without any solid foundation, revealing ignorance,” said finance minister Teixeira dos Santos. He was responding to remarks by New York Professor Nouriel Roubini that Portugal might be forced out of the euro, and by ex-IMF chief economist Simon Johnson that Portugal is on “the verge of bankruptcy”.
Yes, Portugal’s public debt will be 86pc of GDP this year against 124pc for Greece (EC estimates). That is small comfort. Giles Moec from Deutsche Bank said Portugal’s private debt reached 239pc in 2008: Greece was 123pc. Total debt levels matter. The last two years have taught us that private excess lands on the taxpayer one way or another. For Portugal, the figure is now is in the danger zone above 300pc.
Mr Moec said Portugal has been blighted by entering EMU at an overvalued exchange rate: “Portuguese exporters have never been able to recover”. The country has plugged the perma-gap with foreign loans. This cannot go on. The current account deficit is still running at 10pc of GDP, and the patience of global investors is snapping. Euro enthusiasts are mystified at why Portugal’s catch-up growth stalled in the 1990s. Productivity has been stuck at 64pc of the EU-15 level, refuting the cardinal assumption of EMU that North and South must converge over time.
This should be no surprise. A study of the Latin Monetary Union after 1865 by Kee-Hong Bae and Warren Bailey showed there was no convergence for half a century. Weak states cheated, inflating stealthily by dumping silver coins on others. The project was kept alive by French subsidies. That is what haunts Germany today.
Let me be clear, Portugal has not been reckless. It has been run better than Britain for the last eight years. Its banks did not go berserk. House prices have been well-behaved. Lisbon has been cutting public sector jobs for year after year. This can be overstated, of course. The IMF says Portugal still has EMU’s most rigid labour markets. Social transfers have risen to 22pc of GDP from 18.5pc since 2005. Yet you cannot argue that Portugal is a basket case. It has hit a brick wall anyway.
Brussels is now telling Lisbon to cut yet deeper to reduce its budget deficit, 9.3pc of GDP last year. It is one thing to persuade a country to retrench after a boom, it is another when there has been no boom at all. Portugal must do this under a minority government. Socialist premier Jose Socrates survives on sufferance of conservatives, who are wobbling. Portugal does not face an imminent funding crisis. If Europe’s economy grows briskly, it may be enough to lift the country off the reefs. But one thing seems sure: Germany is not going to bail out any more countries, and the IMF is too small to cover.