Spain: “we need to go back to 2000 wages and prices and start again”

When it comes to the housing meltdowns in the richest economies, the US has been matched only by Spain, Ireland and the UK. All four countries have seen spectacular losses of wealth in the housing sector over the last two years.

The response by all four governments was to apply as much stimulus as they reasonably could to prevent their economies from descending into free fall. This has opened up gaping holes in each countries’ government accounts. However, in contrast to the United States or the UK, both Spain and Ireland have the Euro as an external constraint which limits their policy choices.  This has resulted in credit downgrades for the sovereign debt in Ireland and Spain.

Looking at Spain, there was massive over-building in the property sector, which attracted a lot of labor to Spain. Now that these jobs have been vaporized, the unemployment rate has soared to near 18%. The problem is quite acute and there are few policy solutions. Reinforcing this point for me was a discussion I had with Spain-expert Edward Hugh, who writes at the blogs Global Economy Matters and A Fistful of Euros, in the wake of some downbeat comments by Paul Krugman about the country.

Edward wrote:

The problem is Spain can only create jobs through exports. The problem is, with Brussels prices we cannot attract investment to build new factories to create high volume unskilled employment. At this stage in the game we are not in competition with Brussels, but with Bratislava. That may not be a pleasant truth, but it is simply like that. We have attracted a large quantity of people here to work in unskilled low-value employment. The industry that gave them work just permanently disappeared out of sight. We need, urgently to find alternatives since we cannot pay them all 420 euros a month for ever. This is more than a simple academic exercise, it is now a question of life and death for the Spanish economy.

Basically we need to go back to 2000 wages and prices and start again. Maybe you don’t like this idea, but can you point me to anyone who has an alternative?"

Obviously, a huge cut in nominal wages is never going to fly in any country because wage prices are sticky. Call it “money illusion” or call it a desire to maintain a decent standard of living, across-the-board nominal wage cuts are a political non-starter. But, this is what is needed in Spain.

Edward does address the standard-of-living problem this presents:

This is not simply about bringing down wages. It is about simulating a devaluation by bringing down prices AND wages together. So you as an employee should be in the same situation as before. The only realistic way to do this is through a pact between employers, unions and political parties, everyone.

The only real problem is with the debts, since they will also need adjusting down, but see another thread here on this.

But OK, I’m not saying this is going to be easy, just that we have no alternative. We shouldn’t have inflated the housing bubble in the first place.

Of course, being able to devalue the currency is one way to achieve this. But, Spain does not have that option. These are the very real policy cul-de-sacs faced in the aftermath of a debt-fueled asset bubble. And since another one seems to be inflating right now, I reckon the U.S. and the U.K. will be joining Ireland and Spain on this dead-end street in due course whether their currencies are weak or not.

  1. Anonymous says

    “All four countries have seen spectacular losses of wealth in the housing sector over the last two years.”

    Much of it has been a loss of fictitious wealth, wealth on paper, though. Not so much real wealth.


  2. Anonymous says

    Hey Edward… thanks for posting very informative articles .. Please explain the situation at CIT financials and Latvian debt..

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