A surprise development in Portugal this afternoon, as Finance Minister Vítor Gaspar has announced his resignation. The office of Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva has said in a note that Gaspar will be replaced by Maria Luís Albuquerque – one of his deputies, with a long career in the Portuguese Treasury.
Initially, the news sounded very much as a bolt out of the blue. That was until Jornal de Negócios published Gaspar’s letter of resignation on its website. The letter reveals the following:
- Gaspar had already written to Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos-Coelho in October 2012, stressing “the urgency of [his] replacement as Finance Minister.”
- At the time, Gaspar had decided to quit over “a series of important events”. In particular, he mentions the Constitutional Court ruling that struck down the government’s plan to limit extra holiday and Christmas pay for public sector workers as unconstitutional in July 2012, and “the significant erosion of public support” for the austerity measures attached to the Portuguese bailout.
- However, Gaspar was asked to stick around a bit more – at least until the 7th review of the Portuguese bailout by the EU/IMF/ECB Troika was finalised and an extension of the bailout loan maturities was secured. Incidentally, the fact he has now been allowed to leave could be seen as a vote of confidence from the government in the strength of the Portuguese economy (although Gaspar may simply have been stepping up the pressure to be allowed to exit).
- Gaspar also points out that Portugal’s consistent failure to meet its deficit and debt targets under the EU/IMF bailout agreement had “undermined [his] credibility as Finance Minister.” On this point, it is probably worth reminding that, on Friday, it came out that Portugal’s public deficit in the first quarter of 2013 had reached 10.6% of GDP – with the target for this year set at 5.5% of GDP.
- Interestingly, Gaspar concludes his letter by saying, “It’s my firm conviction that my exit will contribute to reinforce your [Prime Minister Passos-Coelho’s] leadership and the cohesion of the cabinet”. This seems to suggest Gaspar may have lost faith in the reform approach taken in Portugal, and may not have been willing to push ahead with it (not least for the reasons mentioned above).
In any case, the news of Gaspar’s resignation hardly comes at a great time for Portugal. As we noted in a recent briefing, the country faces some tough challenges this year:
- Domestic demand, government spending and investment are contracting sharply, leaving the country heavily reliant on uncertain export growth to drive the economy.
- By cutting wages and costs at home (internal devaluation), Portugal has in recent years improved its level of competitiveness in the eurozone relative to Germany. However, this trend actually started to reverse sharply in 2012, meaning that the divergence between countries such as Portugal and Germany has begun growing again – exactly the sort of imbalance the eurozone is seeking to close.
- In its austerity efforts, Portugal is now coming up against serious political and constitutional limits. For the second time, the country’s constitutional court has ruled against public sector wage cuts – a key plank in the country’s EU-mandated austerity plan – while the previous political consensus in the parliament for austerity has evaporated.
How much impact this will have remains to be seen, although in a country where the economic future remains uncertain, suprises such as this are hardly ever welcome. In practice, though, the approach is likely to continue in much the same vein, firstly because the EU/IMF/ECB Troika has shown little willingness to be flexible with Portugal, and secondly because Maria Luís Albuquerque has often voiced her support for the approach taken so far.
That said, it is an interesting reminder of the strains the bailout programme is putting on the Portuguese government, as it begins the difficult task of finding a way to smoothly exit from its reliance on external funding.