By most measures, Greece’s economy is in worse shape than Spain’s. Greece has been largely shut off from financial markets for more than two years; yields on its bonds are still sky high. Gross domestic product has fallen nearly 20% over the previous three years. Spain can still borrow from private investors, and its GDP has fallen around 5% during the crisis.
But if you take forecasts from the European Commission seriously, Greece enjoys one formidable advantage over Spain: Its economy is running well below capacity, while the Spanish economy, despite an unemployment rate around 25%, is operating relatively close to full steam.
Why is that an advantage? According to the commission, it means that the Greek unemployment rate should fall sharply if the economy starts to recover again, without causing inflation. Spain faces a much more difficult situation. If the structure of its labor market doesn’t change, the commission’s analysis suggests that a nascent economic recovery in Spain could be hampered by labor shortages that would spark wage inflation.
Greece faces similar problems, but they are less serious, according to the commission’s analysis. Yes, the “government-borrows-money-and funds-consumption” model of growth won’t be available to Greece anymore. But it didn’t endure the same private-sector credit bubble that hit Spain during the previous decade.
The differences between Greece and Spain can be seen in several economic metrics published by the commission. There is the output gap, or the difference between actual GDP and potential GDP (as a percentage of potential GDP). The figure is a whopping 13% for Greece but just 4.6% for Spain.
Then take a look at the commission’s estimates of the so-called non-accelerating wage rate of unemployment (NAWRU) in Greece and Spain. This is the unemployment rate below which the commission believes the inflation rate starts to rise. It’s also known as the “natural rate” of unemployment. The natural unemployment rate for Greece is around 14.8%; it is 21.5% for Spain. This despite unemployment rates around 25% in both countries.
Spain’s structural budget deficit is somewhat smaller than its actual deficit (6.3% of GDP vs. 8%), because of the country’s weak economy. But most of the deficit is still “structural,” according to the commission, a disturbing thought in a country where 25% of the workforce is unemployed.
And because the euro zone’s new “Fiscal Pact” requires countries to bring their structural deficits under 0.5% of GDP, Spain still has a lot of government austerity to endure before the cutting is done.
Only One Realistic Solution
I do not subscribe to the concept of a "natural rate of unemployment". Nonetheless, if even half of what Dalton writes is true, Spain is in a world of hurt.
I do think Dalton hits the target on structural issues and that puts an unsolvable problem on the Spanish government that is struggling mightily to not subject itself to Troika-imposed austerity measures in return for a bailout.
Eventually Spain, like Greece will see the light. The only way out of this mess is to leave the euro and simultaneously undertake structural reforms.