Spain backs pension reform, big asset sales
Spain's government Friday set a date to raise the retirement age and backed multi-billion-euro stake sales in the lottery and airports to ward off debt pressures threatening the country.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero pulled out of a Latin American summit to attend a cabinet meeting on the crisis, sending a powerful message about Spain's determination to avoid a Greece-style debt debacle.
The Socialist-led government will approve on January 28 a plan to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67, fiercely opposed by unions, Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said.
"We have agreed that the government will approve the reform of the pensions system on January 28 in order to send it to parliament," he told a news conference after a cabinet meeting.
Spain's socialist government unveiled the plan more than a year ago in order to ensure that the social security system remains viable amid a rapidly ageing population and strained public finances.
Tens of thousands took to the streets across Spain in February to condemn the proposal.
Ministers agreed to boost the state coffers with asset sales, cut taxes on small- and medium-sized business and to raise tobacco taxes, Finance Minister Elena Salgado told the same news conference.
The asset sales, unveiled two days earlier by Zapatero, include:
-- Selling up to 30 percent of the state-owned lottery, an option the government said it was not even considering as recently as January. Loterias y Apuestas del Estado posted a net profit of 2.99 billion euros in 2009, a 3.5 percent increase despite the economic crisis.
-- Selling up to 49 percent of airport management company AENA, a significant increase from original plans to cede 30 percent.
Spanish media said the country could net as much as five billion euros (6.5 billion dollars) from the privatisation of the lottery and nine billion euros from the sale of the stake in AENA, reports said.
Salgado earlier said the sales would allow Spain to cut new borrowing from the markets by a third in 2011, lowering bond issues to 30-31 billion euros from the 45 billion euros originally planned.
"That will allow us to reduce our stock of debt," she said in an interview with the Financial Times published Thursday.
Even with a reduction in new debt issues, the central government has to repay 120 billion euros in existing debt that matures in 2011, according to Treasury figures.
That figure excludes the debt racked up by Spain's semi-autonomous, heavily indebted regional governments.
The Spanish government aims to rein in its public deficit from 11.1 percent of Gross Domestic Product last year, the third highest in the eurozone after Greece and Ireland, to 3.0 percent -- the EU limit -- by 2013.
© 2010 AFP