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Spain recovers timidly but still has a way to go

[MADRID] Spain, which goes to the polls on December 20, is in better economic shape than it was four years ago when the conservatives came to power, although public debt and unemployment remain sky-high.

In December 2011, when Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took power after eight years of Socialist rule, Spain was in dire shape.

The construction sector, which had been a major engine for growth, had stopped in its tracks after the housing bubble burst in 2008, taking with it banks overwhelmed by the debt of people who could no longer pay their mortgages.

Since then, the country has gone in and out of recession and unemployment went through the roof, from 8.57 per cent in 2007 to 22.56 per cent in 2011.

At that time, 1,400 Spaniards lost their jobs every day, Mr Rajoy has repeatedly pointed out.

The country's 17 semi-autonomous regions, like the central state, were also heavily indebted.

Once in power, the ruling Popular Party maintained austerity measures launched by the Socialists in 2009 - spending cuts, tax rises, and salary freezes for civil servants.

It claims to have saved 150 billion euros (S$231 billion) between 2012 and 2014, thus avoiding a damaging, Greece-like rescue deal, even if the Spanish banking sector was bailed out by the European Union to the tune of 40 billion euros.

The eurozone's fourth largest economy started growing again in 2014, with a 1.4 per cent gross domestic product (GDP) leap, and expects to expand 3.3 per cent this year - a better performance than its eurozone neighbours.

A 2012 reform of the labour market reduced the costs for companies of laying off people.

Some sectors such as the automotive industry, which generates 10 per cent of the GDP, had also started reducing salaries or working seven days a week.

As a result, the workforce in the industrial sector and in market services cost just 21 euros an hour in the second quarter of the year, according to the Paris-based Coe-Rexecode economic research centre, compared with 36 euros in France and 34 in Germany.

That gave Spanish firms a major competitive edge, and they have reported a near 25 per cent rise in exports since 2007.

The country's unemployment rate is also ebbing and emboldened households have started to spend again.

Domestic demand - both from households and companies - is in fact one of the main drivers of growth.

Other external factors, such as a drop in oil prices and the depreciation of the euro, have also helped.

But economists say Spain is far from having resolved its problems.

Unemployment still stands at more than 21 per cent, and some have given up trying to find a job.

"The quality of jobs created is debatable," Bankinter analysts say, pointing to many precarious or part-time positions.

Under Mr Rajoy's watch, the number of jobless has dropped by just 436,000, to 4.8 million.

In 2014, the GDP stood at 1.06 trillion euros, compared with 1.12 trillion in 2008.

Spain is also still heavily indebted, with its public debt at 99.3 per cent of GDP in the third quarter.

Education is also an issue, with a school drop-out rate of 22 per cent - a record in the European Union - and a lack of training for the unemployed.

AFP