Spain is trapped in a ‘perverse spiral’ as wage cuts deepen the crisis
by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
Originally published: 30 May 2010
THE SPANISH INQUISITION USED TO BURN ENGLISHMEN in Sevilla’s Plaza de San Francisco when they had the chance. There must have been some nostalgia for this practice when the news hit that Fitch Ratings had stripped the country of its AAA status. The downgrade could not have come at a more dreadful moment. The EU’s €750bn “shield” for eurozone debtors has halted an incipient run on Club Med banks, but it has failed to restore full confidence for the obvious reason that such a guarantee cannot plausibly be extended from Greece to Portugal and then to Spain. The sums are too large, the number of solvent creditors too reduced, the intra-EMU politics too poisonous.
Pierre Lellouche, France’s Europe minister, compares the shield to NATO’s Article 4, the mutual defence clause that deems an attack on any one state to be an attack on all. Leaving aside the question of whether Nato’s Article 4 was ever credible, this use of NATO language illustrates the confusion in EU circles over the causes of the Club Med bond crisis. This is not a war. It is a beauty contest. Eurozone states must attract capital from pension funds and Asian central banks to finance their deficits or default.
Whether intended or not, Mr Lellouche may have pulled the detonation plug on EMU by boasting that Europe’s politicians had created an EU debt union on the sly. “It is expressly forbidden in the treaties. De facto, we have changed the treaty,” he told the Financial Times. How will that go down at Germany’s constitutional court, already facing a growing in-tray of claims that these bail-outs breach the Maastricht Treaty?
For Spain it has been a horrible week. The central bank seized CajaSur and imposed draconian write-down rules on banks to restore confidence. The Spanish Socialist and Workers Party (PSOE) of Jose Luis Zapatero then rammed a 5pc cut in public wages through the Cortes by a single vote, shattering consensus. The government cannot hope to pass a budget. Its own trade union base is planning a general strike.
The sub-text of Fitch’s 32-page report shows Mr Zapatero’s self-immolation to be futile in any case. The agency has not downgraded Spain for lack of austerity. Its implicit conclusion is that the policy of 1930s wage cuts – or “internal devaluations” – being imposed on southern Europe’s humiliated states as a quid pro quo for the EU shield is itself part of the problem. Ultra-austerity will bleed the economy, shrivel tax revenues and fail to close deficit anyway. “Fitch believes the risk that economic growth will fall short of the government’s projections,” it said.
El Pais spoke of a “perverse spiral” in its editorial. “The Fitch note drives home the apparently unsolvable contradiction in which the Spanish economy finds itself. To maintain debt solvency Spain must squeeze public spending: yet this policy undermines the chances of recovery which itself causes further loss of confidence.”
Spain’s unemployment was already 20.5pc even before this latest dose of shock therapy. There are 4.6m people without work. Dole payments alone account for half the budget deficit. By comparison, the Anuario Estadístico shows that Spain’s unemployment never rose above 9.5pc during the Great Depression . The economy shrank by 3pc from peak to trough. The Zapatero slump is worse than anything inflicted by Gil Robles during the Bienio Negro.
It is no mystery why Spain is trapped in depression. The country joined the euro without grasping its Faustian implications, as did others. Germany was equally naive in thinking it could have a currency union entirely on its own terms. EMU caused Spanish interest rates to halve overnight, with dire results as the Bank of Spain’s governor confessed in April 2007. “The single monetary policy has meant that excessively loose conditions for our economy have been almost continuous,” he said.
Real rates were -2pc as the bubble reached its crescendo. Nearly 800,000 homes were built in 2007, more than in Britain, Germany, and Italy combined. There is now an overhang of 1.6m unsold properties, six times the level per capita in the US. Total public/private debt has reached 270pc of GDP.
The boom was a debt illusion, just as it was in Britain but with the added twists of lower wealth to offset household debt and a global investment position that is underwater by 70pc of GDP. Britain still has the instruments to extricate itself. The Bank of England has engineered a devaluation of 20pc, restoring competitiveness at a stroke. Spain can try to claw back an even greater loss by cutting wages, but that risks a slow death by debt-deflation as compound interest tightens its vice.
This can end only in two ways. Either Germany tolerates massive monetary reflation by the ECB or Spain will be forced out of EMU, setting off a catastrophic chain-reaction through north Europe’s banking system. Your choice, Berlin.