Spain's pension system is on the rocks. Before the crisis it was running constant surpluses, but now the trend has reversed, and it is in constant deficit, and the shortfalls look set to stretch forwards as far as the eye can see. The curious detail about this situation is that even as the crisis deepens the government keeps raising the real value of pensions being paid. (This post is an edited extract from my larger piece, Why Is Spain's Population Loss An Economic Problem?).
On the other hand household consumption is surging: it was up an annual 3.9% in the last three months of 2014, a phenomenon which is leading many to talk of "good deflation" in Spain. But what proponents of this argument tend to forget is that someone if paying for this "deflation boost" party. I the case of salaried workers the cost is carried by their employers, but in the case of pensioners the "fiesta" is being charged directly to the account of future generations of pensioners, as Spain's mini boom becomes increasingly consumption driven.
Shifting The Burden Onto The Reserve Fund
The fact that Spain's pension system was going to have problem maintaining the level of payments has long been known. In fact in recent years there have been two reforms which have tried to address different aspects of the problem. But it is really the huge loss of employment during the crisis that has really highlighted the chronic nature of the underfunding the system is being subjected to. Initially the then socialist government plugged the growing funding gap out of general government finances, but as financial markets started to focus on the size of the country's fiscal deficit this practice became increasingly problematic.
With the arrival of the PP there was a change in strategy and since 2012 the pensions deficit has been funded by drawing down on the Reserve Fund. This was established in 2000 and was meant to ensure the long term sustainability of the system, especially as demographic pressure mounted towards the end of this decade. The Fund had been accumulating the surpluses generated in the 2000 - 2007 boom years.
The financing switch has helped the headline fiscal deficit number, but the decline in the Reserve Fund that has been the result is starting to make a growing number of Spaniards increasingly nervous.
One part of the problem the system is having is simply the result of population ageing: the balance shifts as the number of pensioners rises and the number of contributors for each pensioner falls. Another part is the result of the recent economic crisis (since with so much unemployment less people contribute) while a third contributing factor are the recent changes in the labour market structure which mean that young people now earn a lot less than those retiring, leading average contributions to fall, while average pensions rise.
Some of the results of this sea change can be seen in the chart below (sorry about the Spanish, but I think the main points are easily grasped). The number of contributors for each pensioner hit a high of 2.71 in 2007, since then it has been falling and was at 2.25 in 2014. The number of pensioners has risen from 7.6 million in 2007 to 8.4 million in 2014.
The average pension paid is also rising. In February 2015 the total amount paid out by the system in pensions was up 3.1% year on year. But the number of pensioners was only up 1.3%, so the average pension went up by 2.1% due to the fact that the most recent retirees have been earning more than earlier cohorts and are thus entitled to higher pensions. We don't have data on this year's pension system income yet, but at the end of last year it was rising at about 1.5% a year, leaving a growing shortfall for the system to cover.
As I said, under the former PSOE the shortfall was funded out of the general government budget, and possibly 1.5 percentage points of the 9.6% 2011 fiscal deficit were the result of this financing. With the arrival of the PP in government this policy changed, and pension financing moved over to the Reserve Fund.
The attrition has been constant and the Fund is now starting to dwindle. In 2012 7 billion euros were withdrawn, in 2013 it was 11.6 billion euros and in 2014 15.3 billion euros (or 1.5% of GDP). If you want to compare apples with apples and pears with pears, you would need to add this 1.5% of GDP to the 5.6% fiscal deficit, giving a 7.1% deficit using the same accounting criteria as 2011. Put another way the deficit has really been reduced from 9.6% to 7.1% in 3 years, hardly dramatic austerity. Instead of paying the pensions gap out of current income the government are using a credit card issued by "future pensions" to keep payments up even though the situation is obviously getting worse, meaning it will be even more difficult to pay current pension levels in the future than it is now.
As a result of all these withdrawals the size of the Reserve Fund has fallen from its 66.8 billion euro peak in 2011 to the current level of 41.6 billion euros. At the moment the government have budgeted for another 8.4 billion euro withdrawal this year, but this number could easily turn out to be larger. So 2015 should close with around 30 billion euros outstanding - about 3 years more money at the current rate. It is clear that soon after the election changes will have to be made. Even though the number of contributors to the system is growing as the employment situation improves the rate of spending is rising faster.
There was a pension reform in 2013 which was intended to address the problem by making the system self financing. A complicated formula was introduced whose intention was to ensure that more money didn't go out - on a structural basis - than came in. But this was in the era when Spaniards still expected inflation as their economic default setting. As a result - and as a way of selling the reform - a minimum increase of 0.25% was set. Last December consumer prices were down 1.5% over a year earlier, and as a result the minimum rise was a generous "vote winning" increase of 1.75% at a time when the system itself was running at a huge loss. Something similar will happen this year, giving at least one part of the explanation as to why retail sales are doing better - in part these increased sales are being paid for with future pensions.
Spain Real Time Data Charts
Edward Hugh is only able to update this blog from time to time, but he does run a lively Twitter account with plenty of Spain related comment. He also maintains a collection of constantly updated Spain charts with short updates on a Storify dedicated page Spain's Economic Recovery - Glass Half Full or Glass Half Empty?