WASHINGTON (AP) – Europe has endured the pain of layoffs, wage cuts and tax increases designed to bring government debt under control.
So where’s the gain?
Far from falling, debt burdens are rising fastest in European countries that have enacted the most draconian austerity programs, according to The Associated Press’ Global Economy Tracker, which monitors the performance of 30 major economies. The numbers back up what many analysts say: Austerity isn’t just painful. It can be counterproductive and even make a country’s debt load grow.
Many fear the cutbacks will cause Europe to sink into a self-defeating spiral: Higher debt leads to harsher austerity, growing social instability and deeper economic problems. Governments could find it even harder to pay their bills.
The pain is already intense. Portugal’s unemployment rate hit a record 14 percent at the end of last year. Ireland’s economy contracted a worse-than-expected 1.9 percent in the July-September quarter of 2011. And Greece reported that its already basket-case economy shrank 7 percent in the October-December quarter of last year.
“This isn’t a healthy situation,” says Peter Morici, an economist at the University of Maryland.
Under a deal approved Tuesday by the 17 countries that use the euro and the International Monetary Fund, Greece will get a $172 billion bailout in exchange for accepting another dose of austerity that includes laying off 15,000 civil servants and slashing the minimum wage by 22 percent.
– Portugal cut pensions, reduced public servants’ wages and raised taxes starting in 2010. Yet in the third quarter of 2011, government debt equaled 110 percent of GDP. That was up from 91 percent a year earlier.
– In Ireland, middle-class wages have been reduced 15 percent and the sales tax boosted to 23 percent (the highest in the European Union). But its debt amounted to 105 percent of economic output in the third quarter of last year; a year earlier, it was 88 percent.
– In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron staked his political future on his austerity plan. Government debt ratios, though, reached 80 percent in third-quarter 2011, up from 74 percent a year earlier. And Moody’s this month cut its outlook on Britain’s prized AAA credit rating from “stable” to “negative.”
– In Greece, two years of austerity programs have devastated the economy and triggered riots. Still, the government’s debt equaled an alarming 159 percent of the country’s GDP in the July-September quarter of 2011. That was up from 139 percent a year earlier.