Focus shifts to Spaxit

The banking crisis could even mean that Spain beats Greece out the door.

Greece is so passé. This week, the eyes of the world have slowly begun to shift to Spain.

The real kick to switch focus was the news on Monday that the Spanish/German bond spread had topped 5 per cent - that is, the yield on Spanish bonds is now over five percentage points above the yield on German bonds. Why does this matter? Because spreads for Greek, Irish and Portugese bonds were over that level for 16 days, 24 days and 34 days respectively before they were forced into bailouts.

The root of Spain's problems are very different from Greece's, though. It's a combination of a terrible housing bust and the bind the euro traps them in. Once house prices started to plummet, the banking sector was in deep trouble, but due to the single currency, Spain can't recapitalise it the way a fully sovereign state would. So there is a very real risk of Spain going bankrupt and being forced out of the eurozone.

But this risk alone is surmountable. A combination of a sympathetic ECB (which, of course, means a sympathetic Germany), confidence in the ability of the institutions involved to find a solution, and speedy action would greatly reduce the danger of Spain leaving the currency (which has, inevitably, been dubbed a "Spaxit"). Unfortunately, none of those things actually exist.

Afraid of Spain leaving the eurozone, Spaniards are moving their euros out of their country's banks, and either hoarding notes or opening accounts in Northern Europe. Which means that the banks are in even more trouble, the bailout costs go up, and Germany is even less likely to help out. As Tyler Cowen put it:

Spain is in a self-cannibalizing downward spiral, as Greece was and is.  It will not end until there is, at the bottom, an absolute and total crash.

The Wall Street Journal's Matthew Lynn even thinks that the Spanish exit could happen without a Greek one, giving six reasons Spain will leave the euro first:

There are few good reasons for the country to stay in the euro — and little sign it has the will to endure the sacrifices the currency will demand of them.

What's more, as Matt Yglesias points out:

I don't think anyone has deluded themselves into the idea that the eurozone could survive Spain leaving. If Spain goes, it all goes.

Grexit may or may not increase the chance of Spaxit. But Spaxit almost certainly means Netherlexit, Fraxit, and even Gerxit. (Although hopefully those "words" will never again see print)

Ironically, this death spiral may now be the best hope for Spain. The knowledge that a failure to recapitalise its banks could lead to the end of the eurozone gives it much needed leverage over the ECB to gain the funds it needs. But, as the Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reported:

There is no sign so far that the ECB is ready to relent as Frankfurt and Madrid cross swords in an escalting test of will. The ECB has scotched Mr Rajoy’s tentative plans to recapitalize Bankia by drawing on ECB funds.

Perhaps put more vividly by the LSE's Luis Garicano:

It is dangerous to play chicken when you are driving a Seat and the ECB is driving a tank.

A rally for the Spanish People's Party. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.