For Europe's Future, Spain Is All That Matters

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Last Spring it was Greece that was in crisis mode—then last week, it was Ireland—and coming up next is Portugal—

—but all those pale in comparison to Spain.

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If I had to bet on which country will bring about the end of the Euro—and perhaps even the end of the European Union—I’d have to say it’s Spain.

Right now, no one is talking about Spain—Spanish spreads are as quiet as a guilty man in a police line-up—everyone’s too concerned over Ireland, and the upcoming Portuguese Situation.

But Spain is the key—Spain is what you should be paying attention to, if you want to find out what will happen to the European Monetary Union (EMU), and the European Union (EU) itself.

First, a recap of last week’s exciting episode of I’m an Insolvent Nation—Get Me Out Of Here!:

Ireland got into trouble with the Euro bond markets after German Chancellor Angela Merkel made some not-very-clever remarks about Irish bond-holders needing to take some haircuts. The bond markets started to panic—yields on Irish debt started to widen—and then once again, it’s Sovereign Debt PanicTime™ (patent pending).

The EU in conjunction with the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) put together a rescue package—but the Irish refused to take it, as they realized they would have to give up some of their hard-won sovereignty in exchange for this lifeline. To accede to this package, they’d likely have to slash government expenditures, take on “austerity measures”, and likely raise their precious 12.5% corporate income tax rate, which has been the carrot the Irish have used to get so much foreign investment over the last decade.

But the Irish deterioration in the bond markets began to pick up speed—finally on Sunday night, after a week of dithering, Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen officially asked the European Union for a bail out.

(A quick explanation for the layman, as to why the bond markets are so important: Because Ireland is running a deficit, it needs to sell bonds—that is, borrow money—in order to finance its fiscal shortfall. If the bond markets do not have much faith that Ireland will pay back the bonds it emits, then the price of Irish bonds will go lower, which means the yields will go higher. In other words, Ireland will be forced to pay more for the money it is borrowing. The more it has to pay to borrow money, the greater the deficit, until finally, you get to the point where you cannot borrow enough to cover your deficit: In other words, you go broke. This was what was happening to Ireland, in simplified terms.)

Just like they did with Greece, the European officials colossally jacked up the bail-out package for Ireland. It turns out that—far from having put together a detailed package that could be swiftly implemented, and thereby restore confidence—the EU/ECB/IMF troika have only a flimsy framework for the Irish bailout. The vaunted European Financial Stability Facility? It’s not even fully funded yet!

So on Monday, the markets were jubilant—“Ireland is saved! Crisis averted!”—but then today Tuesday, they’re down in the dumps, as it is becoming increasingly clear how unprepared the European officials are. Their “rescue package” is vague on the details—to put it mildly.

Coupled to that, the bail-out announcement sparked a political fire-storm in Ireland—Cowen’s coalition partners, the Green Party, exited the government, and elections are now scheduled for January. There are even calls from Cowen’s own party for his immediate resignation.

This is bad enough—so what does the IMF go and do? Why, with exquisite political tone-deafness, it sends the clear message that Ireland is going to have to crawl if it wants the bail out: John Lipsky, a muckety-muck in the IMF, says to Reuters that “our work there [in Ireland] is technical, not political. Decisions have to be made by [the Irish] government.” In other words, the IMF isn’t going to negotiate with Ireland—it’s going to dictate.

Or in other words, the IMF is saying, Beg for the money, you Irish bitches!

So any effective clean-up of the Irish situation is going to take a while—assuming it actually happens. And just like the Greek bail-out last spring, it will be messy messy messy: Half-measures, dithering, “adjusted” figures, until finally the European officials wind up throwing twice as much money at the problem as originally expected. We might as well call the movie now playing in Dublin, Doin’ It Greek, Part II: Ireland!

To add insult to injury, all this politico-economic theater didn’t staunch what most worried the EU and the ECB: Contagion.

All the smaller, weaker European economies in the EMU are in the same boat as Ireland: They are all insolvent. Not just the PIIGS—Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain—but also Belgium, and maybe even France, if we steel ourselves and look at the numbers.

Right now, though, contagion has reached Portugal—the next-weakest link in the European Chain:

Portuguese debt yields are widening by about 50 basis point this morning, to 4.328% over the German bunds (10-year)—even after the Portuguese government implemented a second austerity package this past October, following their May spending cuts which did not convince the bond markets.

That’s because the Portuguese have a huge fiscal deficit: 9.4% of GDP. They are cutting spending, and they are raising taxes too—but still, their bond yields are rising: The market doesn’t think that Portugal will make it through this crisis intact. Just like Greece, just like Ireland, the Portuguese will need to be bailed out.

And so that clears the way for the bond market’s anxieties to focus on the real elephant in the drawing room:

Spain.

According to IMF numbers for 2009, the gross domestic product of Greece was $331 billion, Ireland was $221 billion, and Portugal was $233 billion—

—but Spain’s GDP in 2009 was $1.468 trillion. Roughly twice Greece, Ireland and Portugal combined. In other words, close to half of Germany’s GDP.

And what is Spain’s fiscal deficit? Last year, it was officially 7.9% of GDP—twice the EU limit. Not Irish or Portuguese or much less Greek numbers, but still up there—officially.

Why do I say “officially”? And now put “officially” in scare quotes? Because of a very disturbing anonymous paper, released last September 30.

Written by a local economist, it basically said that the Spanish GDP numbers for 2009 were cooked—and then went ahead and showed the whys and hows of this analysis. FT Alphaville originally ran the piece—and it was picked up by everybody, freaking everyone out. But then Alphaville up and retracted the paper under political pressure, excusing their cowardice by saying “life is too short”.

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About Gonzalo Lira

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