Spain Is Doomed: Why Austerity Is Destroying Europe

... but the beatings will continue until bond yields improve!

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[Wikimedia Commons]

Let's try a thought experiment. Imagine you walked into the bank, told them you were going to be taking pay cuts for the next few years, and then asked for a loan. You'd be laughed out of the office or else pay an interest rate so high that "usurious" wouldn't do it justice. The logic is simple: If you're in debt and your income is shrinking, it's mighty hard to pay back what you already owe.

It's not any different when it comes to countries that can't print their own money. That brings us to Spain.


The following charts (courtesy of Reuters) show overall and youth unemployment across the euro zone. Spain tops both measures, with truly depression-level joblessness.

EuroUnemployment.jpeg
EuroYouthUnemployment.jpeg
Nearly a quarter of Spain's population is unemployed. Half of its youth are out of work. And it's only going to get worse. Spain is supposed to trim its deficit by some 5.5 percent of GDP over the next two years. That's not a recipe for growth. Just ask the IMF, which downgraded its projections for Spain's economy back in January.

What matters for a nation is its GDP. That's a country's equivalent of personal income. If Spain's GDP is set to fall for the foreseeable future -- and it is -- then who would want to lend to Spain? The markets gave their answer -- practically nobody! -- and ECB was forced to fill the void by giving Eurobanks free money to then invest in sovereign debt. Yields came down. European policymakers declared "Mission Accomplished."

But now the free money is gone. It's unsurprising that Spanish borrowing costs are surging again.

Unsurprising to everybody who isn't a Eurocrat, that is. Consider this mind-boggling quote from the chairman of the euro zone finance ministers, Jean-Claude Juncker:

I invite financial markets to behave in a rational way. Spain is on track.

On track? For national bankruptcy, yes. But for recovery, absolutely not. Juncker's quote betrays a fundamental misreading of what is making markets anxious. He thinks markets shouldn't worry because Spain is going to follow through on its budget cuts. But markets are worried that Spain is going to follow through on its budget cuts. Austerity would almost certainly shrink the economy and make the country's unconscionable unemployment even worse.

If you're persuaded by my opening analogy, you can see why lenders are so concerned about growth. It's why they don't actually like austerity. But just today, the Bundesbank -- Germany's national central bank, and the real power behind the ECB -- came out and told countries not to worry about growth. Telling a country in a debt crisis like Spain not to worry about growth is like telling man in debt to not worry about finding a job. The most polite way to characterize this advice is "delusional."

To crib from Keynes, Europe's policymakers have blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the workings of which they do not understand. They're not evil. But they're almost certainly wrong. Rather than consider the possibility that the economy might work differently than they think, they have settled on a simple message: The beatings will continue. Unfortunately, morale will continue to not improve. Eventually, you have to think leaders in Europe's beat-up countries will begin to wonder if life might be better outside the euro zone. Hopefully, the ECB will come to its senses first.
Presented by

Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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