Catalonia Independence Is Bad Business
On Sunday November 25th Spain will see another regional election with profound implications for the country, the Catalan elections, in which the traditional messages of more fiscal sovereignty have been overtaken by an unequivocal secessionist agenda, promoted this time by the party in government, CiU.
Catalan separatists argue that the central government of Spain is stealing Catalonia’s money and that the region would thrive as an independent state. However, careful analysis shows that it is unclear to say the least.
The economic figures show that Catalonia is suffering, like Spain and most of Europe, from a bloated administration and unnecessary spending, but these problems would not be solved through independence. Rather the contrary, more taxes, more public spending and the creation of more administration bodies has been the norm in all secessions since the 1970s.
Economic data also shows that the separatists’ image of an “economic powerhouse” forced to subsidize the other Spanish regions and being looted by the central government is far from real.
So far in 2012 Catalonia has received from the State €11 billion more than its share, apart from the funds needed for its financing, according to official figures. Furthermore, according to various studies from tax experts, Catalonia’s much repeated “Spain steals from us” comes from an alleged €16bn fiscal deficit with the State which is actually a €4bn fiscal surplus, because the region does not recognize its real share of the costs of ministries, justice, defence, research, social services or state debt repayment when accounting for its “deficit”. Not only this, but the State has guaranteed €331m for Catalonia bond maturities. The dependence on financial aid from the state is very relevant, as Standard & Poor’s noted in its downgrade of the Catalan region to non-investment grade status.
Catalonia’s debt multiplied by four times since 2004, reaching 20% of GDP compared to 7% in the Spanish regions of the Basque Country or Madrid. This happened just as the level of autonomy increased to be one of the regions with the highest level of economic and institutional sovereignty in the OECD. The previous president of the regional government, the Generalitat, Mr Montilla, actually called the financing agreement for Catalonia “the best in history”. The number of public workers in Catalonia soared to 306,500 -4% of the entire population of the region- and its deficit ballooned to 3%, Furthermore, the number of regional government owned companies increased by 70% between 2008 and 2011.
More than 19,500 businesses have closed in Catalonia in 2012. A large proportion of those have relocated to more competitive countries, Morocco among them. Business does not flourish in a period of credit, social and institutional uncertainty. It’s tough to see how any of these closed-down businesses will come back to an independent Catalonia. With 646,000 unemployed, a 20% rate, Catalonia should not take the risk of experimenting and seeing how it goes.
Recent reports by international banks from JP Morgan to UBS, RBS, Nomura and others have warned about the market, business and credit implications of secession.
If we look at the Catalan bonds, despite recent state guarantee through the FLA (Regional liquidity Fund) a €5bn bailout and the optimistic figures given on the possible independence, they are still trading at a risk premium to the Bund of about 700 basis points and with an average of 16% discount for the 2015-2016 maturities. This does not indicate any kind of institutional credibility or optimism about the regions’ finances.
International banks are warning their clients of the risks and are unanimously negative. This is because:
Catalonia has a problem of public and private debt. Where will Catalonia find the €12bn it needs to refinance in 2013 and €8-9bn of annual credit? Before independence the difficulty of Catalonia to access to the capital markets has been evident as shown by the forced issuance of “patriotic bonds” to retail investors to pay for current expenses. With mounting “transition costs” and large refinancing needs in 2013-2015 investors would question a country, Spain or the severed Catalonia, which uses its financial resources to cover current spending.
If independent, Catalonia’s debt to GDP would rise to 72% after absorbing its share of state debt, would see lower revenues while expenses from the transition costs could reach 5,6% of GDP according to the above mentioned international banks. The Catalonia government, the Generalitat, often compares itself to Ireland or Finland. Yet private and public debt together exceeds those of both countries. Its government spends 400 million euro a month in salaries and bills, with more than 150 licensed official cars and public spending is now 33.5 billion annually.
For comparison, the largest industrial company in Spain, which is seven times the size of the GDP of Catalonia, pays about 700 million euro a month in salaries in Spain, including senior management, and has only seven licensed official cars.
Even if we assume Catalonia stays in the EU and that financing is available, according to internal and the above mentioned banks’ analysis, loss of GDP of Catalonia could be between 9-15%, the loss of GDP for the rest of Spain could be of 3-5%, with loss of jobs in Catalonia close to 350,000 and a very similar figure in the rest of Spain. Total value destroyed could be close to €50 billion, roughly the cost so far of the entire economic crisis in Spain since the real estate bubble burst. This is even if the new state were allowed to remain in the EU and in the euro zone. But the European Commission and Mr Barroso –president of the EC- have warned as recently as Friday that wouldn’t be possible. In that case all the negative economic data would be further impacted by a collapsing currency.
However, the biggest risk to investors and bondholders of this independence agenda is the not-subtle calls from the Catalan authorities for implied default or complex long process of financing negotiations with the Spanish government. The Catalan government states in its November investor presentation (“Managing Finance and Treasury under FLA”) that “there would be no disruption for the financial community in the eventual scenario that Catalonia would become independent as the Spanish Treasury would be the main creditor”. This perception that the new state would simply renege from its share of debt and move on as if nothing had changed seems simplistic to say the least. The succession of “credit events” would lead to private and public defaults and investors would not be there to finance instability and credit risk.
The message reads very negatively any way one wants to look at it. It means that Catalonia would not comply with its share of national debt or force a credit event and eventual default on it. Even worse, it threatens to put the rest of Spain in a more stressed financial situation. That is not good business when one looks for “dialogue” especially as Catalonia “exports” more than 57% of its goods to the rest of Spain, its companies and banks have almost 60% of their assets in the country and face more than a hundred billion euro of debt outstanding. The credit implications of lengthy negotiations would be devastating for private businesses and government alike.
In the credit market two separate countries do not have the same access to credit as they had united. It never happened. Catalonia would exist; let’s not say it’s impossible. But annual available credit would quickly fall as we saw in every other occasion. In such an environment, with doubts about every single aspect from the credit perspective I fail to see how investors would react positively to secession, either with its own new currency (massively depreciated) or within the Euro. Uncertainty and lack of clarity, as we all know, are enemies of business and job creation.
Few investor sit waiting to see if the impact of independence on GDP is 5% or 15%. There is no business sense in secession, for Catalonia or Madrid. It is extremely negative for both.