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Spain is officially insolvent: get your money out while you still can

I'd not noticed this until someone drew my attention to it, but the latest IMF Fiscal Monitor, published last month, comes about as close to declaring Spain insolvent as you are ever likely to see in official analysis of this sort. Of course, it doesn't actually say this outright. The IMF is far too diplomatic for such language. But that's the plain meaning of its latest forecasts, which at last have an air of realism about them, rather than being the usual dose of wishful thinking.

Let's take the projected budget deficit first. This is expected to decline quite steeply this year to 6.6 per cent of GDP, but that's mainly because the cost of bailing out the banking sector fell substantially on last year's budget. On a like-for-like basis, there has in fact been very little fall in the underlying deficit. And nor on the present policy mix is there ever likely to be, for that's where the deficit is projected to remain until the end of the IMF's forecasting horizon in 2018.

Next year, the deficit is expected to be 6.9 per cent, the year after 6.6 per cent, and so on with very little further progress thereafter. Remember, all these projections are made on the basis of everything we know about policy so far, so they take account of the latest package of austerity measures announced by the Spanish Government.

The situation looks even worse on a cyclically adjusted basis. What is sometimes called the "structural deficit", or the bit of government borrowing that doesn't go away even after the economy returns to growth (if indeed it ever does), actually deteriorates from an expected 4.2 per cent of GDP this year to 5.7 per cent in 2018. By 2018, Spain has far and away the worst structural deficit of any advanced economy, including other such well known fiscal basket cases as the UK and the US.

So what happens when you carry on borrowing at that sort of rate, year in, year out? Your overall indebtedness rockets, of course, and that's what's going to happen to Spain, where general government gross debt is forecast to rise from 84.1 per cent of GDP last year to 110.6 per cent in 2018. No other advanced economy has such a dramatically worsening outlook. And the tragedy of it all is that Spain is actually making relatively good progress in addressing the "primary balance", that's the deficit before debt servicing costs.

What's projected to occur is essentially what happens in all bankruptcies. Eventually you have to borrow more just to pay the interest on your existing debt. The fiscal compact requires eurozone countries to reduce their deficits to 3 per cent by the end of this year, though Spain among others was recently granted an extension. But on these numbers, there is no chance ever of achieving this target without further austerity measures, which even if they were attempted would very likely be self defeating. IN any case, it seems doubtful an economy where unemployment is already above 25 per cent could take any more.

In the past, the IMF has been guilty of being far too optimistic about Spain, both on the outlook for growth and the public finances, so it's possible it is now committing the reverse mistake of undue pessimism. Yet somehow I doubt it. Spain is chasing its tail down into deflationary oblivion.

All this leads to the conclusion that a big Spanish debt restructuring is inevitable. Spanish sovereign bond yields have fallen sharply since announcement of the European Central Bank's "outright monetary transactions" programme. The ECB has promised to print money without limit to counter the speculators. But in the end, no amount of liquidity can cover up for an underlying problem with solvency.

Europe said that Greece was the first and last such restructuring, but then there was Cyprus. Spain is holding off further recapitalisation of its banks in anticipation of the arrival of Europe's banking union, which it hopes will do the job instead. But if the Cypriot precedent is anything to go by, a heavy price will be demanded by way of recompense. Bank creditors will be widely bailed in. Confiscation of deposits looks all too possible.

I don't advise getting your money out lightly. Indeed, such advise is generally thought grossly irresponsible, for it risks inducing a self reinforcing panic. Yet looking at the IMF projections, it's the only rational thing to do.

PS. I don't include creditors of the British arm of Santander in this warning, who are ring fenced from the mothership back bome in Spain, theoretically at least.

[Source: By Jeremy Warner, The Telegraph, London, 10May13]

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