Déjà Vu All Over Again

Lawrence Peter ‘Yogi’ Berra, a man who earned the respect of American baseball fans first as player and then as manager, declared in the early 1960s that, “This is like déjà vu all over again” as two of his players – Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris – made a habit of hitting home runs game after game.  Berra’s words would appear to be an apt description of renewed stress in the euro-zone.

The euro-zone crisis seemed to ease following the large liquidity injection provided by the European Central Bank in two large three-year long-term refinancing operations, which led some commentators to conclude that the turmoil had come to an end.  Indeed, the yield on Spain’s ten-year sovereign debt dropped from a peak of almost seven per cent at the end of November to below five per cent in early March, while the rate available on equivalent Italian debt securities declined by more than 250 basis points over the same period.

The notion that the crisis was over was to prove decidedly premature, as the siesta was brought to an abrupt end by mounting stress in the Kingdom of Spain, an economy that is twice the size of the combined national outputs of Greece, Ireland and Portugal.  A deepening recession combined with fiscal slippage at the regional level pushed Spain back onto investors’ radar screens, and the resulting jump in ten-year yields close to the psychologically important six per cent level, has prompted onlookers to revisit the possibility that the Mediteranean country might eventually require a bail-out.

In order to appreciate the extent of Spain’s economic malaise, it is important to investigate the large macroeconomic imbalances that accumulated during the country’s long boom that lasted from the mid-1990s until crisis struck in 2007.

Spain benefited considerably from EMU membership and economic growth outpaced the OECD average in nine of the ten years pre-crisis, with the yearly increase in GDP exceeding the euro-zone as a whole by one to one-and-a-half percentage points over the period.  However, the long boom was built on shaky foundations that would be badly exposed once economic turbulence struck.

The stellar economic performance was driven primarily by a classic housing bubble alongside an ill-advised construction boom, which was stimulated by the reduction in interest rates that accompanied greater European integration.  The reference rate on home loans dropped from almost ten per cent in 1997 to just 3.3 per cent by 2007, and the resulting increase in housing demand led to a 115 per cent increase in house prices in real terms over the period.  The true extent of the overshoot in the housing market is demonstrated by the fact that price increases outpaced rental growth by roughly seven percentage points a year from the mid-90s until the bubble burst in 2007.

Strong housing demand enabled the construction market to flourish, and the resulting demand for unskilled labour contributed to a massive influx of immigrants in need of shelter, which perpetuated the cycle.  Indeed, the sustained demand for unskilled labour saw the population expand from 40 to 45 million, as the share of foreigners in the overall population jumped from just one-in-fifty in the mid-90s to almost one-in-eight at the boom’s apex.

The construction boom was fuelled not only by Spanish demand for second homes and immigrants in need of shelter, but further impetus was provided through increased home purchases by other EU citizens.  Indeed, net foreign investment in housing ranged from 0.5 and one per cent of Spanish GDP each year from 1999 to 2007.

The supply-side response to strong housing demand was nothing short of phenomenal.  The housing stock increased from 20.8 million in 2001 to 25.1 million, and the annual new supply regularly exceeded the new construction of France, Germany, Italy and the UK combined.  In fact, Spain added a new dwelling for each addition to the population over this period, such that the number of people to fill each home fell to 1.7 – the lowest in the developed world.

The bubble years were accompanied by a credit boom that saw households and non-financial businesses leverage their balance sheets to dangerous levels.  Indeed, household debt as a percentage of disposable income jumped from just 53 per cent earlier in 1997 to a peak of 132 per cent, while non-financial corporate sector debt jumped from less than 50 per cent of GDP to more than 130 per cent over the same period.  Importantly, a disturbingly large current account deficit meant that the debt-fuelled boom became increasingly dependent upon external financing, which rendered the economy vulnerable to a ‘sudden stop’ that duly arrived in 2007.

Investors’ concerns today are focussed on fiscal slippage and question marks over the true level of government debt, which many believe to be more than twenty percentage points higher than the official public debt-to-GDP ratio of 68 per cent.  However, investors should be equally troubled, if not more so, by the large private sector imbalances that have shown only marginal improvement since the crisis began.

Private sector debt remains unsustainably high, while house prices and the excesses in the construction sector will take several years to absorb.  Investors will be aware that troubled private sector debt has a habit of becoming public debt via an ailing banking system.  It’s déjà vu all over again in Spain.

Previously posted on www.charliefell.com


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