Thursday, November 1, 2012

Stimulus doesn't work. Just look at Spain

As the stimulus versus austerity debate rolls tiresomely on, it is a good time to reflect on what government action did for Spain's economy after the crisis hit four years ago.

Spanish unemployment hit 25% recently.  The government is bankrupt, the banking system bust and the economy is shrinking.  Only an ECB promise "to do all it takes" is preventing a slide toward default and chaos.

As with most Western countries the proximate cause of the crisis is the debt-fueled bubble that preceded it, with the property market at its core and low Euro interest rates enormously exacerbating the problem.

Unlike Brown's Britain, Spain did not compound the problem by running  a large government deficit during the boom years.  The Spanish government was running a surplus in 2007 and the public debt to GDP ratio was a respectable 36% so, according to Keynesian logic, the government was well-placed to rescue the economy from the effects of private sector deleveraging.

And the government has tried lots of stimulus in response to the crisis.  Between 2008 and 2010, before the austerity drive started, the government spent like a drunken sailor: national debt ballooned by more than €200 billion in two years (20% of GDP).

Super low interest rates sent mortgage costs tumbling and thus artificially boosted private incomes.  The government passed laws to allow people to defer their mortgage loans and escape foreclosures.  There were huge public works programmes and schemes to boost car sales (see Spanish car sale worst for 15 years).

If stimulus worked as expected these measures should have allowed the private sector to recover and allow the government to start withdrawing support and begin rebuilding its own finances.

But we are as far away as ever from a private sector recovery.  All those stimulus measures worked for a while but just postponed the day of reckoning.   Spain got no lasting momentum from those so-called boosts - they are just left with the debt.

Car sales are a perfect example of the futility of government action and the damage it can do in the name of stimulus.

Before the crisis hit Spanish car sales regularly topped 1m vehicles a year.  When the bubble burst predictably car sales crashed too, falling 18% in 2009.  The government responded with Plan RenoveE - a subsidy dressed up as a green initiative - and this programme did support increased sales while it ran.

But what good did it do?  Sales last month were 35,000, the lowest on record.  Year on year sales are down an incredible 37%.  The government is trying to revive the subsidy scheme even though it can ill-afford to and must know though that the only permanent effect will be to increase the national debt.

This is just one example.  The public work schemes helped some workers to stay in a job for a year or so but, now the money has run out and the government is cutting at all levels and raising taxes, the unemployment picture is worse than ever with no end in sight.

Arguably worst of all was the various policies to prop up the housing market.  Banks hid their losses for four years until the Bankia scandal showed just how close the whole system was to collapse (see Are Spanish bank accounts safe?).

Only then did the banks face up to their bad debts, begin liquidating and seeking new capital.  A few households might have escaped foreclosure for a time but the full force of "deleveraging" is now being felt and will be more severe than it would have been with an immediate clear out after the property boom ended.

Imagine if the Spanish government had adopted a different path in 2008: concentrated on economic reform instead of increasing public spending, cut out public sector waste, forced the banks to deal realistically with their bad debts and forsworn any quick fixes to help individual sectors.

Yes the immediate effects would have been drastic - a deeper recession, more foreclosures and probably worse public sector finances for a while.  But that was four years ago.  By now things would have bottomed out and there would be growth on the horizon instead of endless stagnation and self-defeating austerity.

Keynesians will read this and say it is the Euro that's done for Spain and it is unfair to blame government attempts to stimulate its way out of recession.  They are mostly wrong.

It is true that Eurozone membership has been a disaster for Spain but the damage was done by low interest rates during the boom not since (see Eurodoubters are being proved doubly right).  Since 2008 rates have mostly been set low to bail out Spanish debtors.  Spain does have an overvalued currency which is part of the problem but Spanish exports have actually been doing well, even now growing at double digit pace.  It is the efforts to end the recession with stimulus that have done the most damage.

When you see an American or British commentator trying to sell the benefits of government action to "fight" a weak economy, remember what has been done to Spain in the name of stimulus and reject them.

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  1. A great argument, detailed and sensible--yet utterly unprovable; one might just as well argue that Spain would have collapsed years ago had it not been for government stimulus programs. I don't actually believe either version. It is sad but true that Spanish governments employ far, far too many people--and at laughable wages. Much public employment is transparently a welfare measure that keeps people off the dole. Only for 2013 has the treasury moved to limit very large income tax deductions for the middle class, including luxuries like up a subsidy of up to 1.356 Euros for buyers of a primary residence and deductions based on the cost of renovations, up to a total of 20.000 Euros. These are ridiculous exemptions. The Euro is a farce in a country like Spain; it disadvantages everyone who earns money in Spain, and produces a huge advantage for those who can make profits or earn salary, commissions or royalties at western European or East Coast (US) rates. Stimulus spending will not fix the crisis in Spain, but more austerity might actually tip the balance toward rioting in the streets and serious social unrest.

  2. Both sides of this argument are interesting and well argued. But just because a neo-Keynsian policy didn't work in Spain is not to say that a policy advanced by someone like, say, Paul Krugman, would not do a lot better in the UK economy. There are a couple of key points here. The Spanish economy and working practices surely just don't justify the high value given to it by having the euro. The fact that a meal costs more in Spain than it does in central London is proof of this. And the second point, is surely, much like Italy and Greece, but unlike Germany and the UK, so much of the Spanish economy is the black economy. Just look at somewhere like Ibiza, where every other bar and restaurant is a money laundering operation. If the Spanish paid proper tax like their northern european neighbours maybe stimulation would work better.


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