5 Startling Figures That Show Spain May Follow in Greece's Footsteps

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It's quite amazing how much a small Mediterranean country can monopolize the news each and every day. If the stock market plummets, blame Greece. If stocks are up 2%, Greece must be closer to solving its crisis. Well, here's a news flash for those folks who are on edge waiting for the next headline out of Greece: What's wrong with Greece can't be fixed overnight, nor does it seem to be confined just to Greece. Ireland and Portugal have also caved under crushing debt loads, while other countries potentially wait in line for their turn at failure.

One such country that's beginning to show serious signs of weakness is Spain. This isn't to say that Spain was on solid footing before the Greek debacle, but things are getting so bad, so fast, that I'm no longer convinced that it won't need some sort of European Union assistance to stave off an economic maelstrom. I've assembled five glaring figures -- much as I did two weeks ago on Greece -- which I'm not going to go on record as saying will guarantee a default, although they are almost surefire death knells for the country if they don't improve quickly.

21.2%. This is perhaps the most revelatory figure as to why Spain is a prime default candidate: a 21.2% unemployment rate. Yes, more than one in five people in Spain is out of work. Specifically, 43% of Spain's youth are unemployed, with 64% of job-seekers aged 16 to 19 still looking for work. Unemployment has exploded 155% higher since 2007, when the rate was "only" 8.3%. The way I see it, there are two factors behind Spain's rapid rise in unemployment. First, there's a rigid wage structure that doesn't easily allow the labor market to correct to the point where people can be re-hired. Secondly, a quarter of Spain's jobs are considered temporary, which caps worker productivity and makes firing considerably easier.

65.2%. Not since 1997 has public debt as a percentage of GDP in Spain reached as high it currently sits. Well beyond the limit established by the EU at 60%, this public debt could be the noose that wraps around the neck of Spain's financial system. Aspiring to reduce the country's annual budget deficit to a target level of 3% by 2013 (a level that I am confident it will never hit), the country has taken to collecting tax installments early, coercing health authorities to purchase generics instead of brand names, upping sales taxes, upping the retirement age, freezing pension plans, and cutting public workers' wages by 5%. That'll spur growth … right?

345bp. Although Spain isn't dealing with 20% long-term lending rates like Greece is, the bond spread between its 10-year bond and the German bund benchmark has widened to 345 basis points. The governor of the Bank of Spain has gone on record as saying that his country would be unable to survive any extended period where the bond spread was in excess of 200 basis points. It's now well beyond that level, at 5.2%, and it's becoming increasingly more difficult for Spain to find willing money lenders, which could potentially cripple its credit markets. China has been willing to inject capital, but the amount of cash potentially needed to get Spain out of its financial shortcomings is considerably more than the amount China has invested so far.

17.8%. When the housing market could do no wrong, Spanish banks big and small, including Banco Santander (NYSE: STD  ) and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (NYSE: BBVA  ) , couldn't lend to real estate developers fast enough. When the market bubble finally popped in 2008 and home prices began to drop like a rock, personal delinquencies showed an ominously low rise. The biggest jump in delinquencies was among real estate developers -- a 250-basis-point increase during the second quarter to 17.8%, according to the Bank of Spain. Based on an aggregate outstanding total, the collectability of 125 billion euros' worth of loans is now listed as doubtful. Are Spanish banks prepared to handle a growing $125 billion euro shortfall? I think not.

30%, 22%, 17%. Just as I did with Greece, I'm going to give you a three-for-one special here. These three figures represent the cumulative decline in the price of land, the inflation-adjusted decline for housing prices, and the total unadjusted decline in housing prices since they hit their peak just a few years ago. With 1.5 million vacant homes currently sitting on the market, it will take upwards of six years for the inventory glut to correct itself. With another method of wealth generation taken away from Spanish citizens and value eroding daily from bank-loan portfolios, it seems unlikely that this country is anywhere near a bottom.

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It's figures like these that make me reconsider investing my money abroad. Since the peak in 2007, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI) is down roughly 25% compared with Spain's IBEX 35, which has lost almost half of its value. I wouldn't tout the U.S. banking system as a model for others to follow, but I do take comfort in knowing that JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) boasts a tier-1 capital ratio of 10.1%, and Bank of New York Mellon (NYSE: BK  ) is safely capitalized with a tier-1 ratio capital ratio of 14.1%. It could just be a matter of time before our daily headlines move go from being Greece-centric to Spain-centric based on these figures.

What's your take? Is Spain headed down a doomed path, or is there light at the end of the tunnel? Sound off in the comments section below and consider adding Banco Santander and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria to your watchlist to keep up on the latest news in Spain's banking sector.

Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong  The Motley Fool owns shares of JPMorgan Chase. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy that will never default on you.

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  • Report this Comment On September 28, 2011, at 11:22 PM, SisyphusRocks wrote:

    Scary figures, to be sure. Spain has a lot of problems.

    But some of these are actually encouraging when not viewed in isolation. For instance, Spain only has public debt of 65%. That's better than Italy at over 100% of GDP, which is why Italy is seen as the main target after Greece. And it will go down maybe as much as 5% if they can unload some of their problem banks the government had to seize when they failed. Plus, their debt to GDP is substantially better than the U.S. and Japan.

    Similarly, while property has declined a lot in Spain and may not have hit bottom, the price increase and declines there may not be as severe as in the U.S., U.K., or Ireland. Some US states and parts of the UK saw more than 50% price drops. Santander has already said that their non-performing loans are past their peak, so those issues may already be gradually getting better.

    However, there's one other big problem you left out - Spain's regional governments. The regions governed by the Socialist Party for the last few years ran up enormous, off-book debts, and generally ran their local governments quite badly. Spain's national government is trying to impose balanced budgets on them, but it's not clear it will work. If they start defaulting, it could drive up Spanish national debt rates to unsustainable levels, leading to a default for Spain.

    The market doesn't think they are going to default yet, but there's definitely heightened risk there, and if there's contagion after Greece defaults, it could include a Spanish default.

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