From independence, freedom and truth

Economy

Spain’s Chronic Illness and the Risk Premium

Fernando del Pino Calvo Sotelo

March 12, 2015

Never have we paid such low interest rates on our debt and the Government of the day naturally runs around trying to convince us that it’s all thanks to their actions. Starting from the assumption that this government has been one of non-action rather than action, the statements that we hear repeated ad nauseam by them merit some critical analysis. Are we definitively out of the crisis? In a few years will we have the unemployment rates of a developed Western nation (rather than that of an African nation), or is this a small cyclical improvement within a systemic crisis, a Great Depression which has yet to be confronted with courage and a wider vision?

In the final scene of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart explains to Ingrid Bergman that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”. Accustomed to receiving news that to a large extent relates only to our own country (or in the case of the rebel regions, to an even smaller and more irrelevant area), it is easy to fall into provincialism, a state exacerbated in the case of those smaller regions, and to forget that Spain is really just a miniscule part of this crazy world: our population, GDP and market capitalization account for only 0.6%, 1.7% and 0.8%, respectively, of the entire world’s. The effect of this smallness is multiplied further because of the mutual dependence brought about by globalization, as a result of which we now have to look to the outside world to understand what is happening to us on the inside. In addition, the economic statistics calculated and publicized by the interested party (i.e., the politicians) almost always suffer from the short-termism that has become a true sign of our times. The current circumstances monopolise the conversation and the structural situation is blurred in a confusing cacophony of facts and figures that vary according to the whim of those who hold the power to feed the ignorant and confuse the unwary, leaving them bewildered by the barrage of propaganda.

The key reason – and I dare say the only reason – why the Spanish risk premium has diminished is because of the policies of the ECB and other central banks and the obvious sovereign bond bubble that affects the euro zone in particular. For example, the charts for the Italian and Spanish 10-year bonds for the last 18 months are not only similar, they are absolutely identical. Indeed, the risk premium in all European countries has declined in complete synchronisation. Not just in Spain but in almost all of the euro zone including bailed-out Portugal (with an enviable 13.5% unemployment rate) and the chaotic and ungovernable Italy (with covetable 12.6% unemployment), 10-year sovereign bonds pay an interest rate below that of Canada and the US. Are we, the countries of southern Europe, truly better off than the US? Not only that, but those countries pay much less nowadays than when they had less debt. In Spain’s case, we pay less interest today with a level of debt that is 100% of GDP and a perpetual deficit than when we had budget surpluses and a level of debt that was 36% of GDP. Obviously, something strange is happening. The policies of the central banks, already completely indefensible, have fuelled new asset bubbles everywhere, recreating the situation of 2007-08, and have completely discouraged governments from adopting measures which, great as they could have been for their countries in the medium term, could be risky for their petty and short-sighted electoral calculations – so, let’s leave reform for the next one! Partly for this reason and partly because of the current government’s clearly anti-reformist stance, combined with our level of debt (the current government’s most relevant legacy) and the time that has sadly been lost (again), our country is now less prepared than it was four years ago – and much less that it was eight years ago – to tackle the next financial crisis, which is as unavoidable as the hangover that follows drunkenness, as inevitable as night follows day. The Spanish economy suffers from a chronic illness whose symptoms were masked by the introduction of the euro and the subsequent bubble, revealed with great virulence during the financial crisis and then concealed again by the irresponsible actions of the central banks.

Since the adoption of the Constitution of 78, the average unemployment rate in Spain has been 17%. We must understand that no developed country and indeed few countries in the world come even close to this figure, even when we make comparable comparisons that take the famous underground economy into account, which is the usual excuse put forward by politicians to justify their ineptitude. This bad data is even more worrisome considering the favourable position we were in at the time. In 1978, Spain had a public debt-to-GDP ratio of around 12% (compared to about 100% today), a level of public spending of approximately 25% (compared to 44% today) and less than one million public employees (one-third of today’s total). Finally, in 1978 over 35% of the Spanish population was under 21 years of age and only 15% was over 60, while today there are more people older than 60 than there are people younger than 21 (source: Fundación Renacimiento Demográfico).

In other words, people paid far less in taxes in Spain, the regulatory tyranny and chaos of the autonomous communities that are choking us today did not exist, public finances were healthier than in many other countries of the Western Hemisphere and there was a solid demographic pyramid. It should also be noted that the Spaniards of yesteryear had not yet been promised that they could forever live beyond their means, i.e. with the money of others, with “guaranteed” pensions and clearly unsustainable public services, so their expectations were much lower and more realistic. Naturally, this is a partial comparison that omits other problems that affected our country in 78, but it has the advantage that, while partial, it includes very significant factors that are perfectly measurable and homogenously comparable. For example, I believe that the level of uncertainty and the political crisis we face today are of the same magnitude or even greater than those of that era, but this is a subjective assessment.

Having said all that, and given the fact that between 1978 and the beginning of the crisis two out of every three jobs created were in the public sector or in construction, the choice is clear: either we make deep structural, political, economic and cultural reforms which to date are nowhere to be seen, or the average unemployment rate for the next 35 years will be over 17%, leading to bankruptcy and a decline in general welfare measured by generations. We need more freedom and less government, more individual responsibility and less false social “security”, more rule of law and less legal uncertainty, more truth and fewer lies. Unfortunately, it seems it will take a miracle for a political leader in Spain to think that way (or even to just think).

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