No one can pretend to know whether Spain is illiquid or insolvent without gauging the size of the black hole that is the country’s banking sector. The Spanish government is finally starting to do this: Bankia and other banks are reportedly set to receive a capital injection from Madrid. With the Spanish economy contracting sharply and with unemployment soaring, it was inevitable that the government had to bail out the banks. But this only deals with one piece of the puzzle. Without growth, the Spanish sovereign will need a bailout as well.
Spain’s credit boom peaked in 2008 when the supply of cheap, external finance began to fall sharply. Four years later, Spanish banks’ asset quality continues to plummet. The sector will require €100-250bn in recapitalisation later this year to maintain a 9 per cent core tier one capital ratio, the minimum stipulated by the European Banking Authority. In the meantime, there are concerns about the capacity and appetite of Spanish banks to support the sovereign, particularly amid rating downgrades and deposit withdrawals.
Ideally, a bailout for Spanish banks should come immediately and in the form of direct capital injections from the EU bailout funds. Germany remains staunchly opposed to this, as it would mean giving up the stick of conditionality and feeding Spain the funding carrot. Such an option is also resisted by the Spanish authorities as the EU taxpayer will effectively take over their banks.
Instead it looks like a bailout for Spanish banks has been postponed until the very last minute. The cost of a bank bailout would then be foisted on to the Spanish sovereign’s balance sheet.
Bank bailouts on this scale may well bring the Spanish state to its knees. If they don’t, Spain’s public and external debt positions will.
In order to stabilise its public debt levels after a bank recapitalisation, Spain would have to generate a swing in its public finances that is not only unrealistic, but also self-defeating. The tax hikes and spending cuts required would make the recession deeper and cause the primary balance to deteriorate.
In order to put itself on a path towards external debt sustainability, Spain would need to see a huge adjustment in its trade balance. In the short-run, a fall in domestic demand could quickly improve the trade balance. However, in the medium-term, Spain can only service its foreign debt if it finds balanced and sustainable growth, which requires a real-terms depreciation that will not occur unless the value of the euro falls sharply.
Anyone who has closely followed developments in the eurozone will be struck by déjà vu looking at Spain’s current predicament. The corrosiveness of banking sector uncertainty for investor confidence in Spain is reminiscent of Ireland in 2009 and 2010. Spain’s austerity-recession feedback loop is similar to the process that fed the economic contraction in Greece and Portugal.
And yet despite the clear signs of failure in the existing bailout countries, the EU looks set to pursue an unchanged plan in Spain. But the crucial difference between Spain and the bailout countries is size. If things go wrong in Greece, Portugal and Ireland, a second bailout is affordable. But there can only be one roll of the dice for a country as large as Spain.
A bailout package would buy some time for Spain, but time will only help if it is used to generate economic growth. By making private claims on the sovereign junior to the claims of the troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) even a bailout risks reducing the chances of it regaining market access. Moreover, with economic indicators showing Spain sinking further into recession, a turnround in the country’s economic performance would require a significant shift in policy: monetary easing by the ECB, a weaker euro, fiscal stimulus in the core, less front-loaded austerity in the periphery, more international firewalls and debt mutualisation.
The only way for there to be a happy ending in Spain is if action is taken swiftly in Brussels, Frankfurt and other European capitals. But that is not likely to happen. The eurozone periphery and Spanish crisis look like a slow motion train wreck.
The writer is chairman of Roubini Global Economics and a professor at the Stern School of Business, New York University. He co-authored this piece with Megan Greene, director of European economics, Roubini Global Economics.