Time for the ECB to Pull the Plug on Portugal

“Monetary policy responsibility cannot substitute for government irresponsibility.” So said Jean-Claude Trichet in a speech on January 7. Few would probably disagree with that statement, at least initially. But doubts and dissent may arise about whether the European Central Bank (ECB) should cut its financial support for Portugal and force it into the arms of the International Monetary Fund and European Financial Stabilization Facility (IMF-EFSF).

Like Ireland, Portugal faces a choice—not whether to accept a bailout but rather from whom to take the help, along with whatever conditionality the outside assistance comes. Like Dublin in November 2010, Lisbon today is already on the “ECB payroll” and protestations of Portuguese politicians that “we can do without a bailout” belong in the satirical political theater category.

In November (latest data), Portuguese banks relied on the ECB for about €40 billion in liquidity support (still at about a quarter of GDP, which is much below Ireland’s 80 percent of GDP on the eve of its November 2010 bailout). In addition, reasonable estimates of ECB purchases of Portuguese government securities through the Securities Market Program1 (SMP) and similar collateral holdings2 easily run into the tens of billions of euros. Since a standard estimate of the required size of an actual IMF program would be three years’ worth of government refinancing—in Portugal this comes to about €73 billion from 2011–133—it is not unreasonable to argue that Portugal is already benefitting from various types of ECB financial support of a magnitude that begins to approach an actual IMF program.

Portugal, however, is blatantly reneging on its part of the deal with the ECB from May 2010, which called for the “additional commitments taken by some euro area governments to accelerate fiscal consolidation and ensure the sustainability of their public finances.” It has a high, but not outrageous, existing government debt burden (83 percent of GDP in 2010), a highly indebted private sector, and an atrocious economic growth record in the euro era. Indeed, like the economy of Greece, the Portuguese economy needs revolutionary structural reforms to improve its growth and competitiveness outlook.4 In contrast to the reform performance of other countries in the region, the Portuguese government has not responded with the policy resolve required to assure financial markets. Next to no meaningful structural reforms of labor and product markets have been announced since May 2010. Even worse, the Portuguese government’s budget consolidation strategy relies on the kind of accounting gimmicks that the Greek crisis ought to have put an end to.

Incredibly, given the focus on Greek budget data shenanigans resulting from the crisis, the Portuguese government intends to meet its budget consolidation targets by transferring the pension funds of Portugal Telecom to the Portuguese state, and book the €2.8 billion (1.6 percent of 2010 GDP) as revenues right away, while showing no increase in general government liabilities.5 This is a time-tested type of “government accounting standards arbitrage” transaction—the kind perpetrated by the French government and its part-privatized electricity incumbent Electricité de France (EDF) in the early 2000s.6 It should not be the role of a responsible ECB to subsidize such behavior by a eurozone government without conditions in 2011.

Instead, the Portuguese government must be forced to seek its financial support—with full conditionality attached—from the IMF-EFSF.

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