When Spain woke up from the Great Reclusion, the Great Recession was still there: the coronavirus found an economy with the still fresh scars of the last crisis, without fiscal buffers and with lacerating levels of unemployment and inequality.
The Government reacted relatively well to the radical uncertainty associated with the emergence of COVID-19 and the formidable economic hit immediately after, but with nuances: it was reluctant to use all the economic policy instruments at its disposal, according to the vice president’s advisers Nadia calviño, partly because a faction of the Council of Ministers was still installed in the intellectual scheme of the previous crisis, and partly because there was little fiscal margin and the cuts sponsored by Brussels and the ECB 10 years ago are still stinging.
In addition, La Moncloa is an optimist in the face of a 2021 full of risks: this is what the vast majority of the voices of the Economy Advisory Council believe, a consultative body with 17 top-level experts consulted by EL PAÍS.
GDP fell above 10% in 2020, more than in most European countries: Spain is more dependent on tourism and the size of its companies is so small that it exposes them particularly to external shocks . The Executive articulated the ERTEs to save jobs, the ICO guarantee lines to save companies, and the Minimum Vital Income to save the furniture of the most disadvantaged.
This package avoided greater evils, although the economists consulted point out that Spain should have done more and that it lacked designing instruments that would progressively adapt to a new normal plagued by fears, uncertainties and relapses.
The economy expects a powerful rebound: growth of 9.8% in 2021 (or 7.2% without a full disbursement of European aid). But that forecast is riddled with conditionals, and conditionals are often diversionary maneuvers.
These are times of radical uncertainty, despite the double light at the end of the tunnel: the vaccine and the European reaction, so different from that of 10 years ago, are the great hopes for the coming year. In return, the risks are great.
The main one is health: a third wave after Christmas, a mutation of the virus like the British one or any mishap with vaccines would turn those numbers into smoke. In short, a vast majority of the experts consulted qualify Calviño’s radiant forecasts.
They distrust that European funds can be spent now, 100% and on projects that raise the potential of the economy and drag the private sector. Without the cushion of the EU and, above all, of the ECBEverything would have been more difficult: nobody foresees an abrupt change of scenery in Europe, but Calviño’s advisers emphasize that anything that twists the course in Brussels and Frankfurt would be bad news for Spain.
The potential lurking accidents recall the profile of the Galician Costa da Morte . Experts fear the rise in delinquency in companies when aid expires, and tremble at the possibility that the health and economic crisis will mutate into financial ones: when that happens the wounds of a crisis are much deeper and more lasting.
They criticize the internal battles in the Executive. They reproach the vagueness of the reformist agenda. They agree that the Government has been on the defensive, despite the fact that it carried out the Budget.
They ask for more fiscal activism now, but in return they demand a plan to cut the deficit to five years ahead, with a high degree of (unlikely) consensus politician. And they predict at least one additional semester of difficulties.
This is the analysis of the terrible financial year that has ended and what is to come, according to the opinions of 15 of the 17 members of the advisory council. Only Rafael Repullo and Samuel Bentolila , from Cemfi – a foundation created by the Bank of Spain – refused to make contributions to a debate that is called upon to star in the political agenda for the coming years.
To sum up the year that has just ended, we must combine a title by Juan Benet, Una tomb , and another by John Fante, A terrible year . The death figures speak for themselves, and the GDP bump will be studied in history manuals. But there are also positive notes.
“Europe reacted in a very different way from a decade ago: the ECB has done everything necessary, and Brussels suspended fiscal rules, agreed on a very powerful bazooka and launched Eurobonds,” explains economist Ángel Ubide .
At home, “the Government promoted the ERTE and the ICO guarantees , and that has limited the mortality of companies and jobs: without that we would have unemployment rates of more than 20%”, he saysRaymond Torres , from Funcas.
Most experts believe that the Executive hesitated to use all the economic policy instruments at its disposal, in part due to a weak fiscal situation in the game. “The impact of these measures is remarkable, but we had to spend more with interest rates so low; the problem is that we caught the virus with poorly sanitized accounts, “says Teresa García Milá , from Pompeu Fabra University.
The sociologist Belén Barreiro highlights “the social solution to the crisis”, with the Minimum Vital Income as a stiletto , “for its impact on the most vulnerable households, many of them already hit by the Great Recession, and because it has served to contain disaffection , which unlike in 2008 has not been triggered ”.
Spain finally approved some Budgets (and that is the good thing: because they are relatively expansive, in line with the current situation, and because they offer a plus of political stability, according to Calviño’s advisers).
But he took them forward with a huge — and ugly — political noise, and they suppose “a stimulus somewhat less than what the situation required”: Emilio Ontiveros , from AFI, thus synthesizes the bad.
The same can be said of most economic measures: Spain’s discretionary spending is, as a percentage of GDP, the lowest in the entire EU, according to data from Brussels; this is how several experts have made Calviño ugly in successive council meetings.
“It was necessary to adapt that first, very positive reaction to the possibility of relapses: the terms of the ERTEs and the guarantees have been extended, but jerkily, without a clear horizon.
And it was necessary to bet more on direct recapitalizations of companies, in view of the risk of zombification: there are highly indebted companies that could require such aid – or a debt restructuring scheme to match the challenge that lies ahead – if we want them to survive.
In addition, active policies should have been promoted for workers whose ERTEs were lengthening and they may be unemployed when this ends, ”adds Torres.
“We have been improvising; the Government hit the mark with the water around its neck, but measures have been lacking for this chicha calm full of instability, ”criticizes the consultant José Moisés Martín Carretero .
“Economic policy mechanisms would have been useful to modulate the response more gradually,” explains the former chief economist of the Inter-American Development Bank, José Juan Ruiz . “And we should still put measures on the table for a tricky first half of 2021,” says Torres.