The Bank of Finland is warning that the euro area’s best-rated economy risks sliding down a path that could see its debt burden rival Italy’s.
Finland has little room to deviate from a proposal to fill a 9 billion-euro ($12.3 billion) gap in Europe’s fastest-aging economy if it’s to avoid debt levels doubling in the next decade and a half, according to the central bank.
The northernmost euro member risks joining the bloc’s most indebted nations if the government fails to reform spending, according to calculations by the Helsinki-based Bank of Finland. Without the measures, debt could exceed 110 percent of gross domestic product by 2030, according to the bank. The ratio was 53.6 percent in 2012. Success with the plan would help restrain debt levels to about 70 percent by 2030, the bank said.
The central bank’s assessment shows that the government’s plan would have a “real impact,” Finance Minister Jutta Urpilainen said in an e-mailed response to questions via her aide. Structural reforms are needed if “the Finnish welfare state has a chance to survive,” she said.
The only euro member with a stable AAA grade at the three main rating companies, Finland’s economy is struggling to emerge from the decline of its paper makers and its flagging Nokia Oyj-led technology industry. Export demand has failed to offset weak consumer demand, as companies fire workers and the government responds to deficits with cuts. Lost revenue is hampering government efforts to set aside funds needed to care for the fastest-aging population in the European Union.
In the period August to November, Finland’s six-party coalition put together a package to streamline and reduce public spending to eliminate a gap of more than 9 billion euros in public finances by 2017. The package consists of several different measures, each to be sent to parliament independently. Some of the measures, including changes to pensions and health-care providers, are still being drafted.
Finland’s “costs related to aging will grow faster than elsewhere within the next two decades,” Petri Maeki-Fraenti, an economist at the Bank of Finland, said in an interview. Aging costs will be “decisive” in accelerating debt growth after 2020, he said.
The government reduced its economic forecasts on Dec. 19 for the 10th time since coming to power in June 2011. Even as exports look set to recover and rise 3.6 percent in 2014, GDP will grow only 0.8 percent after declining 1.2 percent in 2013, the Finance Ministry said.
The Bank of Finland’s calculations assume an average economic expansion of about 1.5 percent in the long term, compared with an average of 3.7 percent during 2003 to 2007, according to a February 2013 report by economists Helvi Kinnunen, Maeki-Fraenti and Hannu Viertola.
“We must get used to slower economic growth for an extended period of time,” Maeki-Fraenti said.
The average debt level in the euro area shot up more than 25 percentage points in five years after hovering around 70 percent for the majority of the last decade. Finland has followed suit, with the Finance Ministry estimating its debt-to-GDP ratio rising to 60 percent this year from 33.9 percent in 2008.
Euro-area debt reached 93.4 percent of GDP at the end of the second quarter, according to the European Central Bank. Italy reduced its government debt to 103 percent of GDP in 2007. Since the debt crisis, its debt has begun mounting again, rising to 134 percent of GDP this year, the European Commission forecast Nov. 5.
Debt levels exceeding 90 percent hurt economic growth, Harvard University economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff argued in a 2010 paper. Three years later, their claims were refuted by University of Massachusetts researchers, citing “serious errors” that overstate the significance of the boundary.
The World Bank set a similar “tipping point” at 77 percent in a 2010 paper, while a 2011 study by the Bank for International Settlements identified a sovereign debt threshold of 85 percent. An IMF report from 2012 found “no particular threshold” that would consistently precede low growth.
Finding an absolute threshold for debt after which economic growth starts slowing is “quite impossible,” Bank of Finland’s Maeki-Fraenti said. Addressing sluggish growth and public debt is necessary for Finland due to the pressure from aging and the decline of its cornerstone industries, he said.
“As the debt level is still relatively tolerable and our unemployment hasn’t shot up in the same way, it has perhaps led some to believe that the problems shall be fixed on their own as export demand revives,” he said. “Our view is slightly more pessimistic.”