Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Recovery Will Not Be Realised

Alfredo Pastor is professor of economics at the IESE Business School. He is also a former secretary of state for the economy - in the last PSOE government of Felipe González. It was interesting, therefore, to find an article of his in "The Bulletin", one entitled "Reasons to believe Spain's recovery is not far away". The reasons why Professor Pastor believes recovery might be in the offing include greater competitiveness through lower labour costs, a growing export market and some hints of business confidence creeping back.

There are some signs of recovery and it would be wrong to talk down the possibility of an improvement in the overall economic picture if not this year then next. BBVA bank has suggested that negative growth of minus 1.1% in 2013, slightly less bad than had been predicted, will be matched by plus 1.1% in 2014. It wouldn't be a huge improvement, but it would still be an improvement. BBVA, like Professor Pastor, emphasises export performance, but the economist Edward Hugh, generally a pessimist rather than an optimist, has made a comparison with the experience in Hungary where, despite good export performance, its economy keeps slipping back into recession. In Hungary, the country's current account balance is in the black. Spain's is moving this way, too, which sounds like a reason to be cheerful, but this disguises the size of the country's external debt.

Because of this debt, gains that are made from having a trade surplus thanks to export performance are used to service the debt. Greater competitiveness because of lower labour costs (internal devaluation) leads to better export competitiveness but doesn't necessarily mean economic growth, or growth that is anything other than small or even sustainable.

The Spanish Government is pinning its hopes on there being some growth, even if it is very moderate, and on this having a positive impact on the 26% unemployment rate. But unless export growth were to be more spectacular, it remains difficult to see how this unemployment is going to be tackled. Despite Professor Pastor's belief that confidence may be coming back, even if it is only trickling back, is this confidence among exporters or among those involved with the domestic market? The retail sector, for instance, is depressed and is likely to stay depressed. It may even become more depressed. And the reason for this is that there are potentially more recessionary measures yet to be taken.

The EU's budget enforcer, Olli Rehn, has suggested that Spain's deficit targets, ones that the government keeps missing anyway, could be eased, but the fact is that the country's fiscal position is currently unsustainable. More cuts and more tax increases are going to be needed at some point. Indeed, the EU has also suggested that there is room for a further rise in IVA (if not to the higher, general rate then to the lower rate, the so-called tourist rate). The political fallout from a rise in the tourist rate might prove too much for the government and for its supporters in the tourism industry who would desert it. But if the higher rate were to rise, then demand would be squeezed even more, meaning a further brake on any possible growth.

The miserable truth is that although taxes have been raised, although cuts have been swingeing, the deficit targets are still not being met, while, as a consequence -  and perversely enough - of attempting to curb the deficit as swiftly as the government has been attempting to, the economy has been contracting because of the squeeze on demand.

Growth may return next year but as the government has been hell-bent (mainly because it had no other option) on pursuing a policy of internal devaluation through lower costs, this will also, both in the short and longer-term, have a depressive effect. Salary and wage reductions, some in the order of up to 40%, mainly in the public sector but certainly not exclusively, will do nothing to stimulate demand, and with credit squeezed as well (though movements on banks' recapitalisation may just takes the brakes off to a degree), it is almost impossible to see from where  growth, other than any from exports, is likely to come and even more impossible to see how it might be sustained.

Professor Pastor is optimistic that the political situation re Catalonia will not lead to violence (and one can interpret this how one wants). Let's hope he's right. I happen to agree with him, but can there be the same optimism where social discontent is concerned? There is only so much a people can put up with, and while the financial economy might be showing an improvement, in the real world, there is none.

Any comments to please.

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