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Portugal's pain as austerity bites

Portugal's pain as austerity bites
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Portugal has just drawn praise from the so-called troika – the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank – for its progress in introducing the austerity measures it agreed to in return for bailout money.

But that is no comfort to the people of Portugal, who are flocking to consumer advice centres for help on coping with their personal debts amid the tax increases and spending cuts.

Unemployed Nuno Pinto, wants to file for personal bankruptcy in the face of repayments on loans he took out before bailed-out Portugal was engulfed by a financial crisis.

He said: “It’s difficult to keep your spirits up in this situation. You just get so desperate! I’ve not been earning for six weeks and I don’t know where the money is going to come from. What hope for my future?”

Pinto was seeking advice at the Portuguese Consumer Defence Association (DECO), where legal advisor Natalia Nunes said it is a growing problem: “Last year more than 23,000 families contacted us, and the common situation is those families have taken five or more loans, one for the house, one for the car, and the rest are personal loans.”

The number of families asking DECO for help rose by 60 percent between 2010 and 2011.

Portugal’s problem is immense: last year 670,000 Portuguese defaulted on their loans in a country of 10.5 million people

Total debt — the state, companies and individuals — is the equivalent of 418 percent of the country’s GDP.

Pulled down by austerity measures, the economy is forecast to shrink 3.3 percent this year after a fall of 1.6 percent in 2011.

Unemployment jumped to 14 percent of the working population in the fourth quarter of 2011 as slumping domestic demand was compounded by a lack of credit, forcing small and medium-sized companies to lay people off. Youth unemployment is at 35 percent.

Scenes of bailiffs repossessing homes are becoming increasingly common as properties are seized to cover debts and/or taxes.

One of Portugal’s biggest law firms that collects on court ordered judgements is increasingly finding debtors have no assets to confiscate.

Lawyer Luis Sequeira Fernandes said: “I used to claw back around 60 percent (of money owed). Now it’s about 30 to 40 percent.”

Economists say the pain will continue for many years yet, even if Portugal avoids going the way of Greece.

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