The Next Global Problem: Portugal

The bailout of Greece, while still not fully consummated, has brought an eerie calm in European financial markets.  It is, for sure, a massive bailout by historical standards.  With the planned addition of IMF money, the Greeks will receive 18% of their GDP in one year at preferential interest rates.  This equals 4,000 euros per person, and will be spent in roughly 11 months. 

Despite this eye-popping sum, the bailout does nothing to resolve the many problems that persist.  Indeed, it probably makes the euro zone a much more dangerous place for the next few years. 

Next on the radar will be Portugal.  This nation has largely missed the spotlight, if only because Greece spiralled downwards.  But both are economically on the verge of bankruptcy, and they each look far more risky than Argentina did back in 2001 when it succumbed to default.

The main problem that Portugal faces, like Greece, Ireland and Spain, is that it is stuck with a highly overvalued exchange rate when it is in need of massive fiscal adjustment.  Portugal spent too much over the last several years, building its debt up to 78% of GDP at end 2009 (compared to Greece’s 114% of GDP and Argentina’s 62% of GDP at default).  The debt has been largely financed by foreigners, and as with Greece, the country has not paid interest outright, but instead refinances its interest payments each year by issuing new debt.  By 2012 Portugal’s debt-GDP ratio should reach 108% of GDP if they meet their planned budget deficit targets.  At some point financial markets will simply refuse to finance this Ponzi game.

To resolve its problems, Portugal needs major fiscal tightening.  For example, just to keep its debt stock constant and pay annual interest on debt at an optimistic 5% interest rate, the country would need to run a 5.4% of GDP primary surplus by 2012.  With a 5.2% GDP planned primary deficit this year, they need roughly 10% of GDP in fiscal tightening.  It is nearly impossible to do this in a fixed exchange rate regime – i.e., the eurozone – without massive unemployment.  The government can only expect several years of high unemployment and tough politics, even if they are to extract themselves from this mess. 

Neither the Greek nor Portuguese political leaders are prepared to make the needed cuts.  The Greeks have announced minor budget changes, and are now holding out for their 45bn euro package while implicitly threatening a messy default on the rest of Europe if they do not get what they want – and when they want it.  The Portuguese are not even discussing serious cuts.  In their 2010 budget they plan a budget deficit of 8.3% of GDP, roughly equal to the 2009 budget deficit (9.4%).  They are waiting and hoping that they may grow out of this mess – but such growth could only come from an amazing global economic boom.

While these nations delay, the EU with its bailout programs – assisted by Mr. Trichet’s European Central Bank – provides financing.  The governments issue bonds, European commercial banks buy them and then deposit these at the ECB as collateral for freshly printed money.  The ECB has become the silent facilitator of profligate spending in the euro zone. 

Last week the ECB had a chance to dismantle this doom machine when the board of governors announced new rules for determining what debts could be used as collateral at the ECB.  Some observers anticipated the ECB might plan to tighten the rules gradually, so preventing the Greek government from issuing too many new bonds that could be financed at the ECB.  But the ECB did not do that.  In fact, the ECB’s board of Governors did the opposite:  they made it even easier for Greece, Portugal, and any other nation to borrow in 2011 and beyond.  Indeed, under the new lax rules you only need to convince one rating agency (and we all know how easy that is) that your debt is not junk in order to get financing from the ECB. Today, despite the clear dangers and massive debts, all three rating agencies are surely scared to take the politically charged step of declaring Greek debt is junk.  They are similarly afraid to touch Portugal.

So what next for Portugal?  Pity the serious Portuguese politician who argues that fiscal probity calls for early belt tightening.  The EU, the ECB, and the Greeks have all proven that the euro zone nations have no threshold for pain, and EU money will be there for anyone who wants it.  The Portuguese politicians can do nothing but wait for the situation to get worse, and then demand their bailout package too.  No doubt Greece will be back next year for more.  And, the nations that “foolishly” already started their austerity, such as Ireland and Italy, must surely be wondering whether they too should take the less austere path. 

There seems to be no logic in the system, but perhaps there is a logical outcome.  Europe will eventually grow tired of bailing out its weaker countries.  The Germans will probably pull that plug first.  The longer we wait to see fiscal probity established, at the ECB and the EU, and within each nation, the more debt will be built up, and the more dangerous the situation will get.  When the plug is finally pulled, at least one nation will end up in a painful default; unfortunately, the way we are heading, the problems could be even more widespread.

This post previously appeared on the NYT.com’s Economix.


Originally published at The Baseline Scenario and reproduced here with the author’s permission. 

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