Catalonia’s Independence Strife Turns into Financial Showdown

by Don Quijones, Wolf Street: Will Spain’s central government blink (again)?

Madrid’s standoff with Spain’s north eastern province of Catalonia, which plans to hold a forbidden referendum on national independence on October 1, grows more and more complex by the day. Just in the last week alone the following developments have taken place:

Spain’s Civil Guard has raided Catalonia’s parliament and government HQ as part of its investigation into political corruption in the region. As new research has shown, this investigation forms part of a broader police operation that has served as a means for Spain’s governing People’s Party to spy on political rivals.

Catalonia’s government has replaced the region’s chief of police with a die-hard separatist. It has also purged the cabinet of any members perceived as not fully committed to the separatist cause.

Deloitte published its annual barometer of Spanish businesses according to which 74% of business leaders believe that the independence of Catalonia would do serious harm to Spain’s economy.

Support in Catalonia for national independence is on the wain, according to a new poll, with 49% opposing independence, and just 41% favoring it. That said, only 67.5% of respondents said they still plan to vote on Oct. 1. Most of them will be nationalists.

Madrid will do everything it can to stop them. The Rajoy government has warned this week that anyone who participates in the purchase of ballot boxes for the referendum could be criminally prosecuted.

The Rajoy government has also warned of serious consequences if it is discovered that public money has been used to organize the referendum. Those consequences could include a temporary freeze on the Autonomic Liquidity Fund (FLA) — a low-interest credit line from the central government that has kept Catalonia’s economy (and the economies of Spain’s other autonomous regions) afloat since Spain’s debt crisis.

Spain doesn’t actually have this money, so it borrows it by issuing bonds that qualify for the ECB’s QE, which pushes down their yields and the costs for Spain. Now, roughly 80% of Catalonia’s debt (about €75.5 billion) is on the shoulders of Spain. And Spain, whose public debt over the last ten years has mushroomed from 40% of GDP to 100% of GDP, is being propped up by the ECB.

Catalonia is desperately dependent on Spain for funding, and Spain is desperately dependent on revenues from Catalonia to service what are essentially Catalonia’s debts, plus its own debts. Neither can keep these financial entanglements going without the other.

All the while, the situation with Catalonia’s home-grown debt gets more and more precarious. In recent days the value of debt issued by Catalonia has slumped to new lows. The yield on debt scheduled to mature in 2024 rose to 4.7%, five times the yield on equivalent Spanish securities. Catalonia’s debt has junk credit ratings: Moody’s has placed it three notches below investment grade; Standards & Poor, four notches, and Fitch, two.

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