Spain economy nears moment of truth

Europe's leaders could soon be facing a moment of truth on whether to bail out the economy of a country much larger than Ireland, Portugal and Greece put together.


    There are real concerns in Spain.

    I'm temporarily working with a Madrid-based Englishman who says he has withdrawn everything but living expenses from his Spanish bank account. And it's not just expats doing it.

    Some 100bn euros were reportedly withdrawn from Spanish banks by private depositors in March and April alone, equivalent to 10 per cent of this country's gross domestic product (GDP).

    Now, that's a lot of cash currently stuffed into suitcases and under mattresses.

    And with the financial markets busy shutting the door on Spanish sovereign borrowing - the yield, or interest rate, on 10-year Spanish government bonds is very close to the levels that forced Ireland, Portugal and Greece to accept bailouts - it seems no one wants to get their hands dirty holding Spanish assets.

    Well, almost no one.

    I've met a man, Angel Garcia Limon, who bought an apartment at a very low price two months ago in a 'ghost' development just outside Madrid. He and his wife appear to be living happily there. The couple is retired and, truly, at $90 000, their two-bed, two-bath home was a snip. It looks well built nice finish.

    I give them six months.

    There are no shops in the development, no doctor or medical centre, a train stop was built but the trains don't stop there.

    Most of the neighbouring flats are vacant, as they have been since 2007 when the developer handed his sizeable loans back to the banks in the form of many hundreds of buyer-less properties. Now, the banks are saddled with the bad debt, billions of euros-worth, in developments just like this one all over Spain.

    Failed loans

    It's been reported that Spanish banks are carrying over $270bn worth of failed property loans, the product of extremely reckless lending to greedy developers during the boom years of cheap credit after Spain joined the euro.

    That's what is currently weighing down on Spain as the speculators bet against its chances of surviving without a bailout from the dreaded troika, the 'men in black', the EU, ECB and IMF.

    So here's where we are, in a nutshell: Spain's banks are all but bust, the government hasn't got the many tens of billions required to sort them out, the financial markets are charging unaffordable rates of interest to go on lending Spain the money to do it, and to service its own bills.

    Oh, and the economy is in recession for the second time in three years - one in four Spaniards hasn't got a job, and in case you had any hopes for the next generation, more than half of those under 25 are out of work.

    You might as well paint the words "BAILOUT", "PAIN" and "THE END OF TIME" on the side of a hot air balloon and launch it over the Santiago Bernabeu stadium during a Real Madrid home game.

    Except that, as Cristobal Montoro, Spain's treasury minister, pointed out in a radio interview on Tuesday, it's "technically impossible" to bail out Spain.

    He didn't explain what he meant, but a fair guess is that he was suggesting it would be, simply, too expensive.

    He may not be wrong.

    Moment of truth

    This is an economy much larger than Ireland, Portugal and Greece put together. Conservative estimates are that if Spain were to find itself locked out of the bond markets - which is where things are heading - a bailout would cost 350bn euros.

    Less charitable estimates rise to the mid-400s.

    Now there is only 500bn euros available in the soon-to-be-inaugurated European Stability Mechanism (ESM), otherwise known as the rescue-pot-to-end-all-rescue-pots.

    What an inauguration that would be: Spain on the ropes, the rescue pot almost empty, the markets turning on even-larger Italy after Spain, or France.

    So, in Spain, Europe's leaders could soon be facing a moment of truth.

    And there are signs the big powers may be getting the point.

    Little squeaky noises from Berlin suggest Germany may finally be willing to step away from the dithering dictats, posturing, and patchwork solutions that have characterised the past two years of euro emergency room procedures and consider, finally, a pan-European safety net that might actually save the single currency.

    A eurobond perhaps?

    There's a good idea: the rich euro countries guaranteeing the debts of the poor. Hmm, something like a eurobond, perhaps. Except, nein, we won't call it a eurobond, Nor will it have all the functions of a eurobond. And we won't be responsible for it alone. Oh no ...



    Interactive: How does your country vote at the UN?

    Interactive: How does your country vote at the UN?

    Explore how your country voted on global issues since 1946, as the world gears up for the 74th UN General Assembly.

    'We were forced out by the government soldiers'

    'We were forced out by the government soldiers'

    We dialled more than 35,000 random phone numbers to paint an accurate picture of displacement across South Sudan.

    Interactive: Plundering Cambodia's forests

    Interactive: Plundering Cambodia's forests

    Meet the man on a mission to take down Cambodia's timber tycoons and expose a rampant illegal cross-border trade.