As previous posts on this blog have discussed, trying simultaneously to shrink total private sector debt levels and government debt levels at the same time, absent very aggressive currency depreciation or other measures to increase net exports, is likely to result in a fall in GDP and deflation. Ironically, that means overly aggressive measures to reduce debt levels will make it even more difficult to service outstanding debt. As Rob Parenteau explained, using the example of Spain:
Domestic Private Sector Financial Balance + Fiscal Balance – Current Account Balance = 0
Again, keep in mind this is an accounting identity, not a theory. If it is wrong, then five centuries of double entry book keeping must also be wrong….
We can apply the financial balances approach to make the current predicament plain. If, for example, Spain is expected to reduce its fiscal deficit from roughly 10% of GDP to 3% of GDP in three years, then the foreign and private domestic sectors must be together willing and able to reduce their financial balances by 7% of GDP. Spain is estimated to be running a 4.5% of GDP current account deficit this year. If Spain cannot improve its current account balance (because remember, it relinquished its control over its nominal exchange rate the day it joined EMU), the arithmetic of sector financial balances is clear. Spain’s households and businesses will need to spend 7% of GDP more than they earn over the duration of the next three years, thereby adding more private debt to their balance sheets.
Spain already is running one of the higher private debt to GDP ratios in the region. In addition, Spain had one of the more dramatic housing busts in the region, which Spanish banks are still trying to dig themselves out from (mostly, it is alleged, by issuing new loans to keep the prior bad loans serviced, in what appears to be a Ponzi scheme fashion). It is highly unlikely Spanish businesses and households will voluntarily raise their indebtedness in an environment of 20% plus unemployment rates, combined with the prospect of rising tax rates and reduced government expenditures as fiscal retrenchment is pursued.
Alternatively, if we assume Spain’s private sector will attempt to preserve its estimated 5.5% of GDP financial balance, or perhaps even attempt to run a larger net saving or surplus position so it can reduce its private debt faster, Spain’s trade balance will need to improve by more than 7% of GDP over the next three years. Barring a major surge in tradable goods demand in the rest of the world, or a rogue wave of rapid product innovation from Spanish entrepreneurs, there is only one way for Spain to accomplish such a significant reversal in its current account balance.
Prices and wages in Spain’s tradable goods sector will need to fall precipitously, and labor productivity will have to surge dramatically, in order to create a large enough real depreciation for Spain that its tradable products gain market share (at, we should mention, the expense of the rest of the Eurozone members). Arguably, the slack resulting from the fiscal retrenchment is just what the doctor might order to raise the odds of accomplishing such a large wage and price deflation in Spain. But how, we must wonder, will Spain’s private debt continue to be serviced during the transition as Spanish household wages and business revenues are falling under higher taxes or lower government spending?
Yves here. Now there is another route, which is sufficient currency depreciation to lift all boats in the EU high enough to . Wolfgang Munchau in the Financial Times hazards what might be required:
….the euro’s exchange rate has indeed weakened, and may weaken further. But it will probably not do so sufficiently to solve southern Europe’s competitiveness problems. In Greece, for example, tourism is the main export industry. A slump of the euro against the dollar is not going to change the country’s relative competitive position against the eurozone nations of the Mediterranean Sea. It could improve competitiveness against Turkey and Croatia, for example, but only to the extent that the lira and kuna also revalue. For the euro exchange rate alone to do the heavy lifting in restoring southern European competitiveness, it would take a massive further depreciation – to about 60 or 80 US cents to the euro.
Yves here. A fall of that magnitude has good odds of being more than a tad destabilizing, both from an economic and a geopolitical standpoint. It’s likely to precipitate either retaliation (selective tariffs) and/or deliberate efforts by other countries to devalue their currency versus the euro.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at the Telegraph points out that ratings agencies and commentators in Spain are taking note of the demand-dampening impact of the austerity measures now planned:
For Spain it has been a horrible week. The central bank seized CajaSur and imposed draconian write-down rules on banks to restore confidence. The Spanish Socialist and Workers Party (PSOE) of Jose Luis Zapatero then rammed a 5pc cut in public wages through the Cortes by a single vote, shattering consensus. The government cannot hope to pass a budget. Its own trade union base is planning a general strike.
The sub-text of Fitch’s 32-page report shows Mr Zapatero’s self-immolation to be futile in any case. The agency has not downgraded Spain for lack of austerity. Its implicit conclusion is that the policy of 1930s wage cuts – or “internal devaluations” – being imposed on southern Europe’s humiliated states as a quid pro quo for the EU shield is itself part of the problem. Ultra-austerity will bleed the economy, shrivel tax revenues and fail to close deficit anyway. “Fitch believes the risk that economic growth will fall short of the government’s projections,” it said.
El Pais spoke of a “perverse spiral” in its editorial. “The Fitch note drives home the apparently unsolvable contradiction in which the Spanish economy finds itself. To maintain debt solvency Spain must squeeze public spending: yet this policy undermines the chances of recovery which itself causes further loss of confidence.”
Yves here. We are not suggesting that there are pretty or painless ways out. But the course of action underway makes shielding Eurobanks from losses one of its top priorities. Yet any program that is going to make average workers take big hits (remember, wage cuts will hit all workers, irrespective of whether they were prudent or reckless) also needs to have at least the patina of shared sacrifice. More costs need to be imposed on banks and bank investors. Equity and bond investors are risk capital, yet they are being shielded again and again from the consequences of their poor decisions. The longer that goes on, the greater the odds of political blowback that will undermine efforts to create greater stability within the eurozone.