Is Spain following in Ireland’s footsteps?

24 Apr 12
Megan Greene

Eighteen months on from the culmination of Ireland’s financial crisis and Spain is facing similar pressures. Another multi-billion euro bailout seems to be inevitable

Watching developments in Spain since the beginning of April has been a source of non-stop déjà vu for anyone who spent 2010 watching events unfold in Ireland. There are a number of striking similarities between the position in which the Spanish government now finds itself and the Irish situation in November 2010, just before it was forced into an European Union/International Monetary Fund bailout programme. Based on Ireland’s experience, a bailout for Spain seems inevitable.

While many have deemed the eurozone crisis to be fiscal in nature, it has never been that simple. It is true that neither Ireland nor Spain were as fiscally healthy as the headline numbers they were posting may have suggested. But that fiscal vulnerability was largely a reflection of other problems in the two economies. Both Ireland and Spain had allowed their public finances to become reliant on property bubbles that had also seen the countries’ banks over-extend themselves and their construction sectors grow unsustainably large.

When the property bubbles burst, this house of cards fell in on itself. Banks in the two countries faced massive losses and in some cases were pushed to insolvency, while in the real economy unemployment spiked as construction activity ground to a halt. The Irish and Spanish governments were left to pick up the tab, just as government revenues started to slump.

With debt and deficit levels soaring, the Spanish and Irish governments were forced to retrench, adding yet more pressure to their economies. What started out as a property bubble underpinned by cheap cross-border credit quickly turned into a trifecta of inter-related problems in both Ireland and Spain: banks needing government recapitalisation, ever-greater demands for austerity to bring the public finances back under control, and the drag of austerity on economic growth.

This trifecta brought Ireland to its knees in late November 2010 when it was forced into an EU/IMF bailout programme. Irish residential property prices had fallen 36.3% from peak to trough by that time (and have since fallen a further 20.5%), but it was disastrous commercial-property lending that had made the Irish banking sector a black hole for recapitalisation.

Eye-watering losses on banks’ commercial property loans were crystallised over the course of 2010 as they were transferred to Nama, the bad bank for Ireland’s worst non-performing loans. To prevent these losses collapsing Ireland’s banking sector and undermining the wider eurozone financial system, the Irish government was forced into a series of recapitalisations totaling €46bn by early 2011, including €31bn in promissory notes provided to Ireland’s zombie banks Anglo Irish Bank and the Irish Nationwide Building Society (now merged as the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation).

With each bank bailout, the Irish government promised in vain that this would be the last. Credibility was only restored when the EU/IMF bailout programme was put in place and Blackrock was brought in to run independent stress tests on Ireland’s banks. These tests identified the need for up to €24bn in further capital, leading to the effective nationalisation of all but one of Ireland’s banks.

Spain’s residential property market has only collapsed around 22% from its peak in 2007 to the end of 2011 and will probably fall an additional 15-20%. The more gradual fall in Spanish property prices (relative to the collapse of those in Ireland) means that the Spanish government has not poured as much into its banking system as Ireland has. Spain’s bank recapitalisation costs have also been smaller as a percentage of GDP than those in Ireland because Spain’s bank resolution institution, FROB, does not force banks to crystallise bank losses up front.

This unfortunately does not mean Spanish banks are any healthier today than Irish banks were back in late 2010. As Spanish property prices fall further and unemployment continues to soar – Spanish unemployment reached 23.6% in February, with youth unemployment exceeding 50% – a mortgage defaults will rise. Spanish banks will almost certainly require further recapitalisation from the government.

As was the case in Ireland, it is extremely difficult to estimate the size of the hole in the Spanish banking sector, and this uncertainty is deeply corrosive of investor confidence. As long as the health of Spain’s banks remains a huge source of doubt, investors will shun Spanish sovereign debt and borrowing costs for Spain will remain elevated.

Throughout the eurozone crisis, the first response demanded of countries in difficulty has been austerity. But this has caused more problems than it has solved. While fiscal adjustment is undoubtedly necessary in the medium term, on the scale and at the pace that we have seen it implemented during this crisis, it has choked off growth.

The Irish government has used successive budgets to announce a steady stream of draconian austerity measures with a view to reining in its budget deficit – a key requirement of the EU/IMF bailout agreement. Coming at the same time that banks, companies and households have been forced to rebuild their balance sheets, the government’s severe fiscal squeeze has served to deepen and prolong the economy’s slump.

A similar dynamic is playing out in Spain. Its budget deficit ballooned to 8.5% of GDP in 2011, and the Spanish government has agreed with the European Commission to cut it back to 5.3% of GDP in 2012 and 3% of GDP in 2013. But we have already witnessed in Ireland what happens to GDP when the government is forced to retrench alongside every other level of society. There is no reason to expect a different result in Spain, and indeed the country slipped back into recession in the second half of 2011.

In late 2010, Ireland had reached a point at which nothing it could do would shift market sentiment in its favour. The combination of uncertainty in the banking sector, an increasingly unsustainable fiscal dynamic, and ongoing economic contraction was more than a match for the beleaguered Irish government’s attempts to reassure investors.

In early November 2010, the Irish government announced the size and pace of its planned fiscal adjustment over the next four years. It had little chance of pleasing the markets with this announcement. A small fiscal adjustment would have been perceived as a lack of seriousness about the need for fiscal sustainability. A big fiscal adjustment, on the other hand, would raise concerns about the impact of retrenchment on growth.

The Irish government opted for the latter strategy, front-loading its fiscal plan with a €6bn adjustment in 2011, out of a four-year total of €15bn. Investors were not impressed. Bond yields rose further after the announcement and within weeks Ireland was forced to enter its bailout programme.

Spain’s current trajectory looks eerily similar. In early April this year, Spanish bond yields started to creep upwards to unsustainable levels once again. In an effort to reassure investors, the Spanish government announced an additional €10bn in savings. But the news of a bigger Spanish fiscal adjustment only served to unnerve investors, who fretted about the implications for economic growth. Consequently Spanish government bond yields edged upwards even further.

If the Spanish government cannot regain market confidence, it will be forced to request access to official funding. This may initially come in the form of support for Spanish banks, but recapitalising the banks only addresses one piece of the puzzle. In the absence of economic growth, the Spanish sovereign will need a bailout too.

Given the similarities between the Irish and Spanish cases so far, one has to wonder if the success of the Irish bailout programme could be a sneak preview of things to come in Spain.

Let’s hope not. Ireland has been held up as a success story by the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF (the so-called troika). This is true – in a relative sense conditions in Ireland are better than those in the other two bailout countries, Greece and Portugal. But Ireland dipped back into recession in the second half of 2011, and with domestic demand set to contract further and foreign demand weakening, it is unlikely the country will find sustainable growth in the next few years. Consequently, Ireland will almost certainly require a second bailout programme when its first programme expires.

This highlights a crucial difference between the Irish and Spanish cases: size. Ireland is small enough for a second round of EU/IMF funding to be affordable if it is needed. Spain is not.

There is only enough money in the EU/IMF arsenal to bail Spain out once. If Spain were to fail to find sustainable growth during the course of a first bailout, it would get no second roll of the dice. Instead, we would face a debt restructuring in one of the Eurozone’s largest economies, with detrimental effects on global growth.

Megan Greene is head of European economics at Roubini Global Economics. This post first appeared on the  blog

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