Spanish Growth An Exports Bubble?

At the beginning of this year there were lots of forecasts that the European economy was going to recover. I never believed them, primarily because government was a bigger burden on the economy than ever. So far I have been proven right, which is not something I would want to celebrate. But I also want to make clear that once government pulls back from its efforts at balancing its budget with higher taxes and spending cuts, the private sector will eventually start to recover.

There is a lot of research to show this. I review the public policy part of that research in chapter 5 in my new book Industrial Poverty. My conclusion is that this kind of austerity can work – the private sector emerges growing from even the most protracted periods of austerity. However, this is not a reason to use austerity as it has been applied through most of recent history, namely as a means to save government. Instead, austerity must be redesigned to reform away government. Otherwise the private-sector recovery that follows will suffer from two ailments:

1. It will look fast in the beginning, as consumers catch up with the standard of living they lost during the austerity period; and

2. Because of the recalibration of the welfare state – permanently higher taxes and permanently lower spending – the economy will hit its full employment level at a higher rate of unemployment than before the austerity episode.

It is also important to keep a watchful eye on whether or not a recovery is external or internal. In too many European countries over the past quarter century, a recovery has come from a rise in exports, i.e., been external. The consequence of this is that the domestic economy lags behind.

To make matters worse, much of modern manufacturing in Europe consists of bringing in parts produced in low-cost countries, assembling them at a highly efficient plant in a European country and then shipping them on to their final destination. This new kind of industrial production is increasingly isolated from the rest of the economy, which means that its multiplier effects on private consumption and business investments is relatively weak. It is, in other words, no longer possible for a small, exports-oriented European country to enter a lasting growth period merely on a rise in exports.

Earlier this year I pointed to Germany as an example of the feeble macroeconomic role of exports. You can get a temporary boost in GDP growth from a rise in exports, but once that boom goes away, it will have left very few lasting “growth footprints” in the economy. It looks like the same thing is now happening in Spain, which is in a recovery, according to the ECB:

The economic recovery has gathered momentum during 2014, with GDP growing at a faster pace than the euro area average.

Going by the latest national accounts numbers from Eurostat, which for obvious reasons covers only the first two quarters of 2014, it was not until Q2 this year that Spanish GDP outpaced the euro zone: 1.1 percent real growth over the same quarter previous year, compared to 0.5 percent for the euro zone.

Before that, Spain was doing worse than the euro zone by a handsome margin.

The ECB again:

Growth has been supported by a rise in domestic demand, while the external balance has weakened substantially as a result of a slowdown in export market growth and higher imports. Domestic consumption and investment in equipment are benefitting from growing confidence, employment creation, easier financing conditions and low inflation.

Over the past year there has been a slow but steady decline in Spanish unemployment, from 26.1 percent in August 2013 to 24.4 percent in August 2014. That is very good for a people hit very hard by disastrously ill designed fiscal policies over the past three years.

At the same time, there are clear signs that this is an “export bubble”. Consider these growth numbers for the country’s GDP (quarterly over same quarter previous year):

SPAIN 2013Q3 2013Q4 2014Q1 2014Q2
Real GDP -0.6 -0.1 0.7 1.1
Private cons. -1.2 1.1 2.1 2.2
Exports 3.7 3.2 6.4 1.5
Investments -5.4 -2.4 -0.7 0.6
Government 0.5 -3.7 0.5 1.0

There is no doubt that GDP growth is improving. While 1.1 percent is absolutely nothing to write home about, as mentioned earlier it exceeds the euro-zone average. The big question is whether or not this improvement will last. The biggest concern is the exports numbers: good growth for two quarters, then a major leap up to 6.4 percent, only to fall back to 1.5 percent. (While these are not seasonally adjusted numbers, they are quarterly growth on an annual basis which neutralizes seasonal effects.) If exports fall back to tepid growth numbers below two percent, GDP growth will most likely slide back into zero territory.

However, there are a couple of other mildly encouraging factoids in these numbers. To begin with, government spending, while on the growth side, is expanding slowly at no more than one percent per year. This number does not account for financial payments, such as unemployment benefits and other income security entitlements, but they do account for government activities that involve government employees. Alas, restraint in government spending means very little effort from government to expand its payrolls to do away with unemployment.

The apparently stable growth in private consumption is in all likelihood attributable to the post-austerity effect I pointed to above. This means that we will not see 2+ percent growth for much longer; for that to happen there has to be a sustained and substantial addition of consumers to the economy who are capable of spending more than what is required for pure subsistence. This, in turn, will not happen until unemployment comes down more than marginally.

Another mildly encouraging sign is that business investments have stopped declining. The turnaround over the past four quarters is in all likelihood an attempt by exporters to expand their capacity. If the exports boom is coming to an end, so will probably investments.

To turn this fledgling recovery into a lasting trend, the Spanish government needs to address the underlying problem in its economy: the welfare state. Otherwise it will just experience spurts of growth here and there as anomalies to a permanent state of stagnation – and industrial poverty.