Argentina forces Spain closer to the precipice

Assets seizure deals new blow as Madrid struggles with bond sale

When it rains in Spain these days, it truly pours misery. Argentina announced on Monday that it is planning to nationalise an oil company, YPF, in which a Spanish firm, Repsol, has a majority stake. Coming at a time when the government in Madrid has just rammed through the most severe budget since the death of General Franco, this must feel like an economic insult for Spain on top of already intolerable injury.

The Spanish government has promised an "overwhelming" response to the threat to Repsol's financial interests in Argentina and the country's Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, is in South America to gather support from friendly governments such as Mexico and Colombia.

The Spanish company's shares fell by as much as 9 per cent yesterday. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso weighed in, saying he expected Argentina to abide by agreements. "I am seriously disappointed about the announcement," he said.

Madrid summoned Argentina's ambassador, Carlos Bettini, as the dispute threatened to evolve into an all-out trade war. "With this hostility, there will be consequences... in the diplomatic field, in the industrial field and on energy," Spain's Industry Minister, José Manuel Soria, said.

But the bitter truth is that Spain is in no real position to win battles abroad. Preventing the roof from falling in at home over the coming months will be difficult enough. Spanish unemployment levels, which were painfully high even in the boom years of the last decade, are now comparable to those seen in America in the depths of the Great Depression. Some 23 per cent of Spaniards are out of work, and youth unemployment in Spain has reached an agonising 50 per cent.

And, most alarming of all, Spain's borrowing costs have jumped in recent weeks, raising the prospect of national bankruptcy. The yield – or interest rate – on 10-year Spanish debt rose above 6 per cent in trading this week as investors' doubts intensified about the ability of the Madrid government to avoid having to seek a bailout from its European Union partners and the International Monetary Fund.

There will be an important new test of market sentiment tomorrow when Madrid attempts to raise €2.5bn in a medium-term debt auction. If investors refuse to lend to the Spanish government, or will only do so at punitively high interest rates, the panic will increase.

The government wisely took the opportunity of the period of calm in capital markets earlier this year to issue half of the debt it needs to finance its spending this year. But Madrid still needs a further €40bn to see it through to the end of 2012. If medium-term Spanish interest rates rise about 7 per cent, analysts predict that Madrid will be unable to avoid following Greece, Ireland and Portugal, and collapsing into the arms of the fraying EU safety net.

So how did Spain get here? European policymakers, particularly German ones, claim that "excessive state spending" was the root of the eurozone debt crisis. But while that was true of Greece, it was not the case in Spain, where the government ran a budget surplus going into the 2008 global banking crisis. What has dragged Spain to the brink of collapse is a massive housing and construction bubble which exploded four years ago.

The country's banking system is its weakest point. Last month Spanish banks were forced to borrow €316bn euros from the European Central Bank (ECB) because they could not raise credit from other European banks. Analysts estimate Spanish institutions to be sitting on unrecognised losses to property companies of up to €100bn.

Worse, the fates of Spain's weak banks are now entwined with the fate of the government in Madrid. The ECB flooded the European banking system with liquidity in December and February. Spanish banks used the cheap ECB loans to buy up Spanish government bonds, driving down Madrid's borrowing costs. But now, with sovereign interest rates up and fears rising about the health of Spanish banks, that virtuous circle has turned vicious. The more investors panic about Spanish banks, the more they panic about the Spanish state, and vice versa.

Can Spain make it without seeking help from abroad? That depends on whether Spain can regain the confidence of investors and generate the growth it requires to soften the impact of the austerity blows in store. The government plans to reduce its budget deficit from 8.5 per cent of GDP in 2011 to 5.3 per cent by the end of the year. To achieve this, it has outlined spending cuts and tax rises, over one year, adding up to €27bn.

But markets are waking up to the fact that all this austerity could prove self-defeating, sucking demand out of the economy as public-sector workers are laid off, taxes go up and government investment programmes are shelved. According to the IMF, the Spanish economy will contract by 1.8 per cent this year. That will push record unemployment and general misery still higher. Desperate though the Spanish population might already feel, the country's economic trials are only just beginning.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Life and Style
tech
Sport
Andros Townsend is challenged by Vladimir Volkov
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teachers and Support Staff

£50 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Teacher or L...

English and Media Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: English & Media Teacher - ...

Y1 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Y1 Teacher required for a So...

Senior Financial Services Associate - City

Highly Competitive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - FINANCIAL SERVICES - Senior...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week