Spain dodges fallout from Portugal bailout request

By Ciaran Giles

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, April 7 2011 9:00 a.m. MDT

People line up to enter a government employment benefit office in Madrid on Monday, April 4, 2011. The number of people signing up for unemployment benefits in Spain rose in March to a new record of 4.3 million, as the country struggles to overcome recession in the eurozone.

Arturo Rodriguez, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

MADRID — Spain has dodged fallout from Portugal's request for a bailout, with Spanish Finance Minister Elena Salgado insisting Thursday that her nation is not next in line for international help — and markets appeared to agree.

Investors accepted lower interest rates in an auction of three-year bonds seen as a first test of Spain's financial health after Portugal announced Wednesday it would seek a long-predicted rescue package it was desperately trying to avoid.

The Spanish Treasury said it sold €4.13 billion ($5.9 billion) Thursday morning at an average interest rate of 3.57 percent, down slightly from 3.59 percent in the last such auction March 3.

Salgado told the Cadena Ser radio station that outside help for the eurozone's fourth largest economy "is absolutely ruled out" because the Spanish economy "is more diversified, more powerful with sound basics, and is much more competitive" than Portugal's.

Portugal's bailout request also appeared to have little impact on Spain's borrowing rates in the secondary market. In afternoon trading, the yield on Spain's 10-year bonds was at 5.27 percent, up marginally from 5.21 percent on Wednesday. The spread, or difference, with Germany's equivalent rate was stable at 182 basis points, indicating investors are not any more worried about the country's finances.

Spain's main stock index, meanwhile, was up 0.1 percent in afternoon trading.

Despite the positive news for the eurozone's fourth largest economy, analysts said Spain's outlook is still shaky and will depend largely on whether the country's troubled savings banks — called "cajas" — can raise money to meet new core capital ratios set by the government.

The Bank of Spain said in February that the cajas are holding about €100 billion ($143 billion) in "potentially problematic" property assets, the result of loans gone bad leftover from Spain's extended construction boom that turned bust two years ago.

"The coming weeks and months will be key in determining whether the market views Spain to be in the clear," said Jane Foley, an analyst at Rabobank International.

But few economists think Spain is in line to become the fourth member of the eurozone's bailout club anytime soon, thanks to a raft of unpopular austerity measures pushed through by the Socialist government, including tax increases, public sector wage cuts and the raising of the retirement age from 65 to 67.

"Spain will not have the same problems as Portugal has been facing because it has been addressing those problems for quite some time," said Angel Gurria, secretary general of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. "I think Spain has successfully differentiated its product."

Dan Seiver, a finance professor at San Diego State University, said there is now a much lower risk that speculators will target other nations in the eurozone, because the weakest countries have received — or are about to receive — bailouts.

Nevertheless, Spain faces extremely difficult times in the years ahead. Unemployment stands at eurozone-high 20 percent with grim growth prospects. Thousands of young Spaniards were expected to demonstrate Thursday night against the austerity measures.

During the construction boom, with housing prices rising steadily and homes seeming like golden investments for many Spaniards, droves purchased apartments and houses with banks often financing 100 percent or more of home purchases.

Miguel Castillo, a 40-year-old furniture store owner, said his sales are about half of what they were several years ago now that most Spaniards have reduced purchasing power or are simply scared to spend.

"We went into more debt than we should have. We lived like rich people when we should not have. They gave money away, and now we have to pay it back," said Castillo.

Spain's central bank says the economy will grow this year by just 0.8 percent after two years of recession, though the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has rosier forecasts for 1.3 percent growth.

Zapatero announced last weekend that he would not seek a third term next year in keeping with his decision years ago that two four-year terms were enough.

The Popular Party has relentlessly criticized Zapatero's handling of Spain's economic woes, and polls favor it to win big in regional elections in May.

Party spokeswoman parliamentary spokeswoman Soraya Saenz de Santamaria told Spanish National Television on Thursday she agreed with the administration's analysis that Spain doesn't need a bailout, but renewed a demand for Zapatero to call for general elections ahead of those scheduled for 2012.

"The day early elections are called, people will breathe a little more easily," she said.

____

Daniel Woolls in Madrid and Gabriele Steinhauser in Budapest, Hungary contributed to this report.

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