Journal Issue

Country Study: Spain

Antonio Spilimbergo
Published Date:
August 2006
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Mario Catalán

Spain’s economic performance since the 1990s has been remarkable: growth has consistently outpaced that of the euro area; employment creation has been brisk; fiscal consolidation has reduced public indebtedness; and EMU participation has brought a number of benefits, anchoring expectations and deepening financial intermediation. Economic imbalances, however, have accumulated. Short- and medium-term challenges include a persistent inflation differential with the euro area, a wide current account deficit, low productivity growth, and loss of competitiveness. Also, aging-related costs pose long-term risks to fiscal sustainability. How to address these challenges has been the major focus of recent IMF research. Staff papers have studied the causes of poor productivity performance, the competitive challenges associated with European Union (EU) enlargement, Spain’s fiscal framework and the effects of fiscal policy on the external balance, the effects of pension reforms, and the costs of internal regulations and trade barriers. Also, recent Financial Sector Assessment Program (FSAP) papers have investigated financial sector issues, including the nonfinancial equity investments of credit institutions, the governance and oversight of savings banks, and the housing and credit booms.

Escolano (2006) accounts for the sources of income growth and shows the increasing role that labor utilization has played over the last decade in Spain’s per capita income convergence to the EU-25 average. It also uncovers, in a cross-country context, a pronounced productivity slowdown beginning in the 1990s that reflects exceptionally low growth in total factor productivity rather than a paucity of capital.

From the demand side, growth has become unbalanced in recent years, with domestic demand outstripping output and net exports exerting a drag on growth. Domestic demand has been supported by the lower interest rates and financial deepening brought about by Spain’s entry into the European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), which enhanced households’ access to credit and attracted capital inflows. This process, coupled with domestic market rigidities, has, however, also brought about persistent inflation differentials with the euro area—real exchange rate appreciation—and current account deficits.

Spain’s poor productivity performance, persistent cost differentials with trade partners, widening current account deficits, and other indicators point to losses of competitiveness. Allard and others (2005) shows evidence that not only cyclical but also structural factors account for the worsening of the external accounts in recent years.

To improve competitiveness, the Spanish government has launched broad productivity-enhancing reforms. These are, however, likely to take time to bear fruit; and Catalán and Lama (2006) thus asks whether fiscal policies could help to contain domestic demand and price pressures in the short run, as structural reforms take hold. Using econometrics, it finds that reductions in government spending are effective in containing demand, moderating cost differentials, and improving the current account balance. Tax changes, however, appear less effective in their impact on activity, the real exchange rate, and the external balance owing to offsetting spending moves, which, over the sample period, have tended to follow tax changes. A related study, Céspedes and Hoffmaister (2003), assesses empirically whether and to what extent fiscal stabilizers actually stabilize aggregate demand. It shows that allowing full play of the automatic stabilizers on the revenue side (without offsetting spending moves) provides an appreciable stabilizing effect.

The evolution of prices and the inflation differential have also been studied by IMF staff members. Hoffmaister (2006) observes that regional price indices do not share a common trend and finds evidence that regional trade barriers increase prices and hinder convergence. Izquierdo, Ley, and Ruiz-Castillo (2003) evaluates how price behavior hurts rich or poor households using the plutocratic gap—the difference between the consumer price index (CPI) inflation measure and inflation measured by an index in which all households are weighted equally. It finds that the gap’s behavior was rather unstable—characterized by recurrent periods of anti-poor and pro-poor bias.

Competitive challenges have become more pressing for Spain since EU enlargement in 2004. Hoffmaister (2004) and Dabán, Garcia-Escribano, and Hoffmaister (2004) use a gravity framework to examine Spain’s opportunities and challenges in the new EU. They identify substantial opportunities for increased trade with the 10 new member states but also find that enlargement will likely change the composition of Spain’s exports. Distances to main markets, however, will favor new members. Overall, potential benefits will likely outweigh losses, but Spain’s economy will need to be sufficiently flexible to adapt to the new circumstances.

Along with monetary stability, fiscal discipline has been a keystone of Spain’s success over the last decade. Sustained consolidation efforts turned a budget deficit of 5 percent of GDP in 1996 into a surplus of more than 1 percent of GDP in 2005, while public indebtedness declined from 67 percent to 43 percent of GDP. Maintaining fiscal discipline in Spain’s highly decentralized fiscal system poses particular challenges. Spilimbergo (2005) examines this topic and argues that subnational fiscal discipline could be strengthened through various means: enhancing subnational fiscal transparency, containing subnational borrowing, extending expenditure limits to the subnational level, promoting greater reliance on local taxes to finance discretionary expenditure, and providing incentives to reward regions that save during good times.

Long-term sustainability of a sound public finance position will require addressing the fiscal implications of population aging. Catalán, Guajardo, and Hoffmaister (2005) uses an overlapping-generations model to quantify the macroeconomic effects of the demographic shock and of pension reforms, as well as their interactions with fiscal policies. Although prefunding the demographic shock by running down debt helps, it does not obviate the need for pension reform. The paper argues for incentives to prolong effective working life and an extension of the base period to compute pensions. These reforms can improve efficiency by reducing labor market distortions, and can deliver significant macroeconomic and welfare gains.

Over the last three decades, the Spanish financial system has gone through significant transformations, in tandem with the international convergence and increased openness of the economy. Catalán and Moretti (2006) examines the success of savings banks (cajas) since the deregulation of the 1970s. Cajas consistently gained market shares in lending and deposit-taking markets—their shares are now close to or above those of banks—while suffering no systemic crises and building a strong capital base. Looking forward, their paper argues that the governance of cajas and market-based discipline can be strengthened by promoting the issuance of cuotas participativas (marketable capital participations without voting rights) to the market, by allowing cajas to merge freely within and across Autonomous Communities, and by reducing the public representation ceiling in their governing bodies. These actions seek to preserve the peculiar legal and institutional nature of cajas—credit institutions with foundational origins and social objectives.

Spanish credit institutions are significant shareholders of firms operating in the main sectors of the economy. Cayazzo and Avesani (2006) assesses the risk of nonfinancial shareholdings through a value-at-risk approach and estimates the capital absorption that these investments require. It argues that although a severe adverse shock to the current portfolio of nonfinancial equity may not have systemically important consequences, the impact on economic capital and profitability of individual institutions could be quite significant. García Pascual (2006) examines the determinants of rapid growth in housing markets and mortgage debt and presents market-based indicators of mortgage debt quality. It finds that Spanish credit institutions appear resilient to a downturn in the housing market owing to prudent loan-to-value ratios, good capitalization, very high provisioning, a moderate debt-to-income ratio for the average household, and a low proportion of households with debt-to-income ratios exceeding 50 percent.


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    CatalánMarioJaimeGuajardo and AlexanderHoffmaister2005“Pension Reform in Spain: Macroeconomic Impact,”in Spain: Selected Issues IMF Country Report No. 05/57 pp. 2775.

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