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Macroeconomic Disequilibria and Public Debt

Between 1973 and 1988, the general government debt/GDP ratio quadrupled, reaching a peak of 74 percent in 1988. This growth in the absolute and relative debt was only partially attributable to the accumulation of government deficits. It also reflected the reorganization of various public funds and enterprises, the separation of their accounts from those of the government, and their fiscal consolidation. The rising trend of the general government debt/GDP ratio was reversed in 1989, as a surge in tax revenues linked to the tax reform and the shrinking public enterprise deficits reduced the public sector borrowing requirement (PSBR) relative to GDP. After falling to 67 percent in 1990, the general government debt/GDP ratio was expected to continue to decline, reflecting fiscal restraint and increased proceeds from privatization.

The financing structure of the public deficits had changed since the mid-1980s under the effect of two factors. First, the easing of the PSBR and the government's determination to reduce the foreign debt/GDP ratio led to a sharp reduction in borrowing abroad. Second, since 1985 the share of nonmonetary financing had increased steeply, not only in the form of public issues of Treasury bills but also, since 1987-88, in the form of medium-term Treasury bonds.

The magnitude of the public sector deficit (including that of the public enterprises) had a crowding-out effect on private investment. The nationalized banks were obliged by law to increase their holding of government paper bearing negative real interest rates. This massive absorption of funds by the public sector was largely at the expense of private enterprises whose financing was often constrained by quantitative credit controls.

Portugal's membership in the EC resulted in substantial net transfers averaging 1.5 percent of annual GDP during 1987-90. The bulk of these transfers was "structural" funds that were used for infrastructure developments and professional training. Additional EC funds, also allocated through the public sector, were designed for the development of Portugal's agricultural and industrial sectors.

After 1985 the PSBR began to show a substantial decline, largely as a result of the improved financial position of public enterprises. Favorable exogenous factors (lower oil prices, lower interest rates, and depreciation of the dollar) helped to moderate operating costs. More important, however, was the shift in government policy. Public enterprise managers were given greater autonomy with respect to investment, labor, and product pricing. Significantly, the combined deficit of the nonfinancial public enterprises fell to below 2 percent of GDP on average in 1987-88 from 8 percent of GDP in 1985-86. In 1989 the borrowing requirements of those enterprises fell further to 1 percent of GDP.

In April 1990, legislation concerning privatization was enacted following an amendment to the constitution in June 1989 that provided the basis for complete (100 percent) divestiture of nationalized enterprises. Among the stated objectives of privatization were to modernize economic units, increase their competitiveness, and contribute to sectoral restructuring; to reduce the role of the state in the economy; to contribute to the development of capital markets; and to widen the participation of Portuguese citizens in the ownership of enterprises, giving particular attention to the workers of the enterprises and to small shareholders.

The Portuguese government was concerned about the strength of foreign investment in privatizations and wanted to reserve the right to veto some transactions. But as a member of the EC, Portugal eventually would have to accept investment from other member countries on an equal footing with investment of its nationals. Significantly, government proceeds from privatization of nationalized enterprises would primarily be used to reduce public debt; and to the extent that profits would rise after privatization, tax revenues would expand. In 1991 proceeds from privatization were expected to amount to 2.5 percent of GDP.

Data as of January 1993

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