Analysis & Opinions - Financial Times

Time for householders to buy bonds and save Spain

| April 30, 2012

Spain is rapidly approaching a liquidity impasse. Markets are nervous because it is not clear how the government will finance its budget deficit and the rollover of its maturing bonds. The budget deficit now stands at 5 per cent of gross domestic product and the bonds maturing in 2012 equal a further 15 per cent of GDP. The International Monetary Fund expects these large deficits and refinancing needs to continue for several years.

The Spanish government therefore needs the confidence of both foreign and domestic investors. Private investors must believe that Spain has both a credible programme to eliminate the annual fiscal deficits and a back-up plan to deal with the maturing debt if there is a shortfall of buyers. If investors know there is such a plan that could be triggered in an emergency, it might never be needed. The government should quickly reduce its near-term fiscal deficits and develop a plan to deal with its needs in following years.

Spain’s commercial banks have little remaining lending capacity – the result of their previous purchases of government bonds and of their losses on property loans. The Bank of Spain lacks the money-creating ability of the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England to buy government bonds. And the European Central Bank is explicitly precluded from financing fiscal deficits of member governments.

This means that the Spanish government must depend on foreign and domestic investors who are now reluctant to lend to a government that may be insolvent. The challenge is to rebuild their confidence.

Although eliminating annual budget deficits is politically difficult, Italy has recently shown that it can be done by a combination of reforms to spending (particularly pensions) and strengthening tax collections. The IMF now forecasts that Italy will have a cyclically adjusted budget deficit this year of less than 0.5 per cent of GDP, with cyclically adjusted budget surpluses starting in 2013.

Spain should also be able to find the spending cuts and revenue gains, since Spanish government spending now exceeds 45 per cent of GDP. It should allow the relative budget autonomy of the Spanish regions to continue only if (as with the states in the US) they are required to limit operating outlays to the funds they receive from central government and from their own taxes.

Even with tough political action, it will take years to achieve a balanced budget. This means there will continue to be budget deficits that need financing, so delays in persuading investors to roll over existing debt as it matures are possible. Building investor confidence during this process requires a plan to avoid a Greek-style default.

One part of such a plan is to negotiate access to the European Stability Mechanism, the €700bn fund created to protect member states from default. But if the refinancing shortfall from private sources is very large, Spain will need to supplement ESM funds.

Raising those additional funds from taxes would push Spain’s economy into a deeper recession and weaken the supply-side incentives needed to stimulate long-term growth. Although some of the increased supply of lending might be achieved by changing the required asset holdings of the Spanish banks, those banks’ condition leaves very little scope for additional lending.

An alternative emergency approach would be to mandate, on a temporary basis, bond purchases by Spanish households and businesses. Here is how such a plan might work.

The Spanish government could use the income tax system to levy a temporary “lending surcharge” on individual incomes. In exchange for those surcharge payments, the households would receive an interest-bearing government bond with a maturity of five to 10 years. A similar surcharge could be levied on businesses based on corporate profits or the businesses’ value added.

Having this back-up plan in place to fill any shortfall in Spain’s finances could give private sector investors the reassurance they need to provide the necessary funds. With private sector confidence that a default would be avoided, it should not even be necessary to draw on the ESM or to levy the surcharge on households and businesses. The Spanish government should therefore move quickly to enact such a plan before it is overcome by its current liquidity problems.

The writer is professor of economics at Harvard University and was president Ronald Reagan’s chief economics adviser.

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For Academic Citation: Feldstein, Martin.“Time for householders to buy bonds and save Spain.” Financial Times, April 30, 2012.