Portugal in Peril

As those Europeans who still have a job return after their summer vacation, they find a news feed that increasingly looks like it did before the summer – and last fall, and the spring before that…

In short: the European crisis continues. Today we get an update from deeply troubled Portugal, courtesy of EUBusiness.com:

Portugal’s creditors arrived back in Lisbon Monday to assess the country’s progress under its 78-billion-euro bailout as Brussels signals it will not cede to a request for the country’s fiscal targets to be relaxed. Payments of the next tranche of bailout loans to Lisbon will depend on a successful review by Portugal’s “troika” of lenders — the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank — of its progress in implementing economic reforms agreed in exchange for the financial aid.

“Reforms” is a code word for draconian tax hikes and panic-driven spending cuts that are facing fierce legal challenges all the way up to the Portuguese Supreme Court. The higher taxes obviously won’t help the economy one iota – on the contrary, they add extra weight to the private sector and will very likely put the Portuguese GDP growth rate well below Eurostat’s predicted 0.9 percent, on average, for 2013 and 2014.

The efforts to cut spending are obviously failing under legal challenges. This tells us two things: they were ill designed and they were forced through under sheer fiscal panic. Cutting government spending is a very good idea, but it has to be done right. In addition to avoiding legal challenges, the cuts must be structural in kind and designed so that they easily and quickly let private entrepreneurs step in and replace terminated government programs. None of this has happened in Portugal, primarily because the Eurocrats pushing the Portuguese government into destructive austerity are not interested in structurally sound reforms. All they want to do is preserve the welfare state and make it fit a smaller, tighter tax base.

So long as the same motives are behind the same austerity measures, we should not expect any change in the outlook for the Portuguese economy. The big question is what happens next year when the current bailout program ends. It is very unlikely that Portugal has even come close to meeting the budgetary requirements under the current bailout program. As the EU Business article hints at, this may lead to a new bailout program in 2014:

The rescue programme is scheduled to expire in mid-2014. Portugal is struggling to meet its deficit target of 5.5 percent of gross domestic product for this year as government reforms aimed at streamlining the government repeatedly get bogged down by legal challenges. Portugal’s Constitutional Court last month struck down a reform allowing civil servants to be laid off if they fail to requalify for a new job. It was the third time that the court has restricted the scope of a government austerity measure. The ruling has helped push Portugal borrowing costs to levels near which it was forced to seek international aid two years ago. The yield on Portuguese government 10-year bonds stood at 7.4 percent on Monday.

This is the level that caused utter panic in Greece and Spain. And so for good reasons: if Portugal had to refinance its entire government debt at 7.4 percent interest, at the current debt level, then its annual payments on its debt would be equal to 9.1 percent of the country’s GDP!

This is not a road to serfdom. It is worse than that. This level of uncontrollable government paves the way to political chaos, economic instability, social turmoil and very likely the destruction of Portugal as a parliamentary democracy.

That point is closer in time than most people think. EU Business again:

Deputy Prime Minister Paulo Portas last week urged Portugal’s international lenders to ease its 2014 public deficit reduction target from 4.0 percent to 4.5 percent of GDP. The appeal got a cool response from Brussels, with the head of eurozone finance ministers, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, saying Lisbon should stick to the deficit reduction targets already agreed. … “Someone has to explain to us how we are going to be able to go from a deficit of 5.5 percent in 2013 to a deficit of 4.0 percent in 2014. We have never seen such a strong reduction in the deficit,” said Antonio Saraiva, the head of the Portuguese Industry Confederation, after meeting with Portas on Monday.

Since legal challenges successfully prohibit or reduce the amount of spending cuts, there is a growing risk that the Portuguese government will choose to rely on tax hikes instead. Tax increases earlier this year have already robbed Portugal’s taxpayers of a month’s salary, on average, in part through a rise in income taxes from 24.5 to 28.5 percent. More tax hikes would plunge the country’s economy into a full-blown depression.

Perhaps the current prime minister, Mr. Coelho, is aware of this. This would explain why he tries to push yet more austerity measures on the economy, including, EU Business reports…

an average 10 percent cut in the pensions of most government workers, which have been loudly opposed by unions.

Imagine the federal government slashing Social Security payments by ten percent across the board. That alone would be unthinkable in the United States, yet unless we start getting serious – very serious – about the federal debt, we are heading in that direction.

As for Portugal, the future is very uncertain except for one thing:  we can surely expect the country’s tumultuous political climate to remain. Radical leftist parties hold a larger share of the parliamentary seats in Portugal than in most other European countries. Their strong presence in the legislature is a formidable hindrance to any effort at rolling back government, eliminating entitlements and massive tax cuts. As a result, political instability, economic decline and social stress will continue to escalate.

What will this lead to? I have said it before, and I will say it again – the one word that captures Europe’s fatal decline: