Spain’s woes (and Europe’s)

(Stanford University – Joan Ramon Resina)  With Spain as the current hotspot in the European financial crisis, it is easy to lose sight of the broader features of the Spanish predicament, which, I submit, was political and cultural before it emerged as financial. One reason for the dramatic escalation of the risk premium on Spanish bonds is the government’s low credibility – itself the consequence of a heady mix of self-contradiction, lack of transparency, and downright lying. On November 20, 2011, after years of corrosive opposition, Mariano Rajoy rose to the presidency of the government on assurances that he understood the crisis and knew how to handle it.  He now feels trapped in a situation he cannot control, not least because much of the damage is of his own party’s making. To be sure, the socialists contributed mightily to the public debt, exacerbated it by denying the crisis when it was already in evidence, and worst of all, did not act to control the housing bubble, which left in its wake banks filled with toxic assets and a severe credit crunch. But at the root of the housing and mortgage bubble were the dangerous liaisons between the banking system and regional governments such as those in  Madrid and Valencia, that have long been steeped in the Partido Popular’s reckless politics and corrupt practices (epitomized by Bankia’s lurid ambitions and costly rescue.)

The banking crisis is dragging down the Spanish economy and bringing the country’s financial structure into uncharted territory. This is a seemingly paradoxical outcome for a country that a few years back boasted a positive balance and a higher growth rate than its neighbors. What happened to upend the triumphant rhetoric of presidents Aznar and Zapatero? To a certain extent the markets appear to have overreacted, and their knee-jerk response to rising debt caused in part by investors’ demand for higher interest on Spanish bonds threatens to bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Before the market developed these jitters however, Spain’s public debt was in fact lower than Germany’s, even as the latter functions as the basis against which the financial risk of other countries is measured. In the last week of June 2012, the distance between Spain’s and Germany’s debt risk was 504 basis points, while that between the US and Germany was only 13. In relation to GDP however, Spain’s public debt remains significantly lower than that of the U.S. At the end of 2011, Spain’s public debt was 68.5% of its GDP, while the US’s was 110.2%.  In spite of this, the US continues to have no trouble financing its debt, and the American dollar has been rising in recent months and continues to be regarded as a safe haven, while the euro is at risk.

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