Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Portugal's next

It's been clear for some time that Portugal would be the next target, but the timing was an open question. This week, however, interest rates for Portuguese bonds have held above 8 per cent, and a political crisis has followed, which is likely to collapse the Portuguese government. 

The Prime Minister's office will now reap what it sowed when it acquiesced to tighter fiscal constraints on national governments that Germany and a few other creditor countries have demanded in return for institutionalising financial aid to the euro zone's debtor countries. That deal has been cemented just recently. It remained silent, hoping that financial markets would believe they had reason to be confident they wouldn't be next in line. 

But this is folly. Bluffing doesn't work when the situation is entirely clear to everyone. Portugal has never had anything resembling control of its public finances. Yes, it has had devastating natural disasters that have hurt the economy and the government's tax revenue for which it can do nothing, but Portugal also has no discipline. This is key in assessing its capacity to reform its finances. There is no evidence that successive Portuguese governments every intended to restrain the country's finances. They got a free ride during the euro's early years, as Germany and France were breaking the rules, but the free ride is over.

There are three ways to interpret the behaviour of the Portuguese government with regard to the austerity measures demanded by Europe's creditors. The first is that they realised they were in grave financial danger, and were willing to reform, but simply hoped that signalling strength would reassure markets not to flee the country. The second, is again that Portuguese parties are willing to exercise discipline, but no one wants to be first and reap the political backlash that ensues. The third possibility, and the one I fear is most likely, is that Portugal is in the grip of a Greek-style delusion that they can go on living as they have, because someone will bail them out. 

They're in for a rude awakening.  

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