Spain’s in trouble - but the outlook for the UK is far worse

Britain’s not the only place feeling the squeeze, as Spain suffers from the end of its housing boom. But anyone who thinks that Spain is in trouble should be far more worried about the UK.

I've mentioned more than a few times here that unemployment is a lagging indicator.

What that means is, that things get bad in the economy, and then the jobless figures start to rise, not the other way about. So anyone arguing that we can't have a recession or a house price crash because employment is high, is simply wrong.

As if to prove it, now JP Morgan has doubled its previous estimate for City job losses to 40,000. That would be 5% of all City staff, the biggest cull since the dot-com bubble burst.

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As The Times puts it that's 12 empty Gherkins'

So far roughly 2,500 City jobs have been cut, reports The Times, so if JP Morgan's 40,000 estimate is correct, there's a lot more pain to come. And not just in the City. Discount retailer, Ethel Austin, went to the wall yesterday, which could see a large number of the group's 2,800 staff laid off depending on the outcome of a rescue deal.

600,000 people are facing bankruptcy

Certainly, there's no sign of the credit crunch easing yet. If Gordon Brown hoped he could say anything to make a difference when he met banking heads at Downing Street yesterday, he'd have been sorely disappointed this morning. Halifax is raising the rate on its two-year tracker it'll now track at 1.99% above the base rate, from 1.49%.

Meanwhile, a report by TDX Group suggested that around 600,000 people might end up facing bankruptcy or taking out an IVA (bankruptcy-lite, as it's sometimes called), because they won't be able to roll over their debts. TDX says that's about double the number that took such action last year. The group based its findings on the fact that around 400,000 people remortgaged or took out new debts to pay off old loans last year with tighter credit conditions, the same escape route won't be open this year.

Britain 's not the only place feeling the squeeze. The first big domino to topple, the US, still sees no bottom in sight for its collapsing housing market. The number of homes entering foreclosure proceedings in March more than doubled year-on-year, to nearly 235,000. About 40% of foreclosures result in actual repossession.

Spain is feeling the squeeze

And even in Europe, car manufacturers saw their worst month in four years, with sales in western Europe falling 10.4% in March, with Spain particularly bad, down 28.2%. This was partly down to changes in tax rules on scrapping older cars, but the country is also in serious trouble due to the end of its construction boom.

Earlier this week, data showed that Spanish service sector confidence was at its lowest on record, while activity in the sector is contracting, according to the latest purchasing managers' index. Sales of big-ticket' items such as washing machines fell 32% last month.

It goes to show just how much consumer activity comes to rely on house prices in countries that have experienced property bubbles. However, while things look bad for Spain, the country does have a few advantages. For one thing, its government has been pretty careful in recent years the country still runs a budget surplus, and so has been able to promise large spending on public works to help economic activity. It's also dishing out a €400 tax rebate in July.

Then there's the fact that Spain's banks have largely avoided the problems associated with off-balance sheet vehicles and creative finance which have plagued many other countries. As WilliamUnderhill points out in Newsweek, this isn't necessarily because they are any better run. It's because in Spain, tighter regulations meant that banks couldn't keep this sort of stuff off their balance sheets, and have thus stuck to older-fashioned ways of making money.

As Willem Buiter of the London School of Economics puts it: "there's some advantage to being slow when the speedy crowd all go off the cliff together."

The outlook for the UK is far worse

Of course, the Spanish banks will have a hard enough time with consumer spending dropping off and all those home loans turning bad. But anyone who thinks that Spain is in trouble should be far more worried about the UK. Our banks are much more exposed to the global credit crisis; our government has spent itself into a corner; and our housing market is about to go the same way as Spain's.

With the euro at record levels against the pound, don't be surprised if the Spanish start looking for holiday homes over here long before we've got enough money to start picking up bargains on the Costa del Sol again.

By the way, just before I go, I wanted to let you know about a special offer for Money Morning readers. Amid all this upheaval, it's hard to know what to invest in, but you should certainly pick up plenty of ideas at the Master Investor 2008 investment show. Speakers include Pizza Express entrepreneur Luke Johnson, Nigel Wray, Mark Slater, fund manager Jim Mellon, as well as share tipster Tom Winnifrith and short-seller Evil Knievil AKA Simon Cawkwell, while executives from more than 100 growth companies will also be attending.

The organisers are offering Money Morning readers a 70% discount (£14.99 against a price of £49.99) on the event, which takes place on Saturday 26th April from 9am to 5:30pm at London's Business Design Centre in Islington. Simply call 020 7562 3372 and quote "Money Morning" or book via, using the discount code SS8.

Turning to the wider markets

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The FTSE 100 climbed 75 points at 5,906. Oil companies were among the main risers as oil prices hit record levels. Meanwhile oil and gas group BG soared on suggestions that a Brazilian field in which it has a 30% stake, contains 33 billion barrels of oil. That would be the largest find in 30 years, though a lot more work needs to be done to confirm the data.

Across the Channel, the Paris CAC-40 closed 14 points higher to end the day at 4,780. And in Frankfurt, the DAX-30 gained 30 points to 6,585.

On Wall Street, US stocks headed higher. The Dow Jones gained 60 points to end at 12,362. The broader S&P 500 rose 6 points, to 1,334, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq climbed 6 points to close at 2,286.

In Asia, Japanese stocks headed higher, with the Nikkei 225 closing 155 points higher at 13,146.

Crude oil was trading at around $113.65 this morning, after hitting a record of $114.08 yesterday, while Brent spot was trading at $111.25.

Spot gold was trading at around $931 an ounce this morning. Platinum was also higher, at around $1,971, while silver was trading at $17.96.

Turning to forex, sterling was trading at 1.9692 against the dollar, and at 1.2431 against the euro. The dollar was last trading at 0.6315 against the euro and 101.58 against the Japanese yen.

And this morning, retailer JJB Sports said that full-year profits fell 63% as it cut prices to clear stock. It also plans to close 72 of its branches.

Our recommended articles for today...

Didgreed create the credit crunch?

- There is something rotten with the state of the financial system. Byron King waves goodbye to the first quarter of 2008 with relief and wonders: what exactly is wrong? He thinks we can't just regulate' our way out of this situation because there is something far deeper going on here. From borrowers, to lenders, to CEOs: we're all responsible for the credit crunch. To learn why, click here: Did greed create the credit crunch?

What to do with your money now

Martin Spring explains that the most important reason why the credit crisis is likely to worsen is continuing uncertainty. So make the most of the recent rally in the market to offload unattractive assets. For more, read: What to do with your money now

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.