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Portugal counts days to end of bailout program

Thursday - 2/20/2014, 7:26am  ET

In this photo taken Feb. 18, 2014, a broker talks on the phone in the trading room of a Portuguese bank in Lisbon. The Portuguese are less than three months away from their big day _ May 17 _ when they expect to get their financial sovereignty back after three years of being told what to do by foreign bailout creditors. In return for the 78 billion-euro ($107 billion) rescue that has since 2011 prevented national bankruptcy, Portugal consented to an economic crash diet: deep cuts in pay and pensions and welfare rights, steep tax increases, and an end to long-standing labor entitlements. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

BARRY HATTON
Associated Press

LISBON, Portugal (AP) -- The Portuguese are less than three months away from their big day -- May 17 -- when they expect to get financial sovereignty back after three years of being told what to do by foreign bailout creditors.

In return for the 78 billion-euro ($107 billion) rescue that has since 2011 prevented national bankruptcy, Portugal consented to an economic crash diet: deep cuts in pay and pensions and welfare rights, steep tax increases, and an end to long-standing labor entitlements.

Countries which share the euro currency are eager for Portugal to show it is financially fit again. Its recovery would help the bloc draw a line under its debt crisis and open the door to growth that could have a beneficial knock-on effect around the globe.

With the eurozone's financial storm clearing, few reckon Portugal will need more cash, like Greece did. But if there are doubts over its ability to go it alone, the bailout creditors could decide to grant it a protective line of credit that would come with strings attached -- more oversight and austerity. Bailout inspectors were due to arrive Thursday for their next-to-last assessment on the issue.

THE PLUS COLUMN

Portugal this month reached a milestone: private investors trusted it enough to give it a long-term loan.

Three years earlier, international investors had started demanding exorbitant rates to lend to Portugal, fearing they might not get their money back. But on Feb. 11 the Portuguese debt agency raised 3 billion euros in a sale of 10-year bonds at an affordable, though still pricey, interest rate of 5.11 percent. When Portugal asked for its bailout, that rate was 17 percent. There was demand for three times the amount of bonds sold, and 83 percent of them were taken up by foreign investors.

Deputy Prime Minister Paulo Portas summed up the government's view in three words: "Portugal is back."

Meanwhile, officials say last year's budget deficit will be better than the targeted 5.5 percent of gross domestic product. In 2010, it was a whopping 10.1 percent.

Portugal last year also broke out of its worst recession in three decades. The economy grew at the second fastest rate in the 18-nation eurozone in the last quarter of 2013, expanding 0.5 percent on the previous three months. In 2012, it shrank 3.2 percent.

The jobless rate has been inching lower, from a record 17.7 percent at the start of last year to 15.4 percent at the end of December. Exports were up 4.6 percent last year after a 5.7 percent jump in 2012. Tourism had a record year, with hotels hosting 14.4 million tourists, up 4.2 percent on 2012.

The government has made the economy leaner and nimbler. It has, for example, made it easier and cheaper to hire and fire workers and alter their working hours and duties; begun restructuring the legal system and state-owned companies; and scrapped century-old rent controls.

Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho says the Portuguese have given up some of their bad habits, such as lavish spending financed by credit. Household borrowing for consumption fell 9.4 percent in 2012 after a 5.8 percent drop the previous year.

"We are today living much more within our means," Passos Coelho said this month.

THE MINUS COLUMN

Despite all Portugal's efforts, the main ratings agencies still classify the country's bonds as junk. Bulgaria and Romania are rated safer bets by Standard & Poor's.

The bailout creditors have twice had to ease Portugal's deficit targets as the economy nosedived. Public debt has grown to around 130 percent of GDP, more than double the eurozone's ceiling of 60 percent.

The financial sector is still weak -- the five biggest banks had their worst ever year in 2013.

And the standard of living is going backwards. GDP per capita in 2010 was 80.4 percent of the EU average. In 2013, it was down to 76 percent.

Street protests, though they have never reached the level of violence seen in bailed-out Greece, have compelled the government to tread carefully. It has struggled to reform the hard-lobbying energy sector and the civil service.

Some analysts fear the economic makeover has been skin-deep and that it could soon be "business as usual." Portugal has needed three bailouts in less than 40 years.

"Change has been very relevant, but there hasn't been a big bang," said Antonio Barroso, a London-based analyst with the Teneo Intelligence consulting firm. "If these big bangs have not happened during the crisis, they won't happen during normal times."

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