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A rise in consumer confidence shows the crisis-ravaged country is on the mend — for now.
MADRID, Spain — If you require more proof that life does imitate art, look no further.
Amazon says sales of sewing machines in this country have soared an “astonishing” 176 percent since last October, when Spanish television began broadcasting a wildly popular new television drama that follows the story of a young seamstress during dictator Francisco Franco’s rise to power in the 1930s.
“El Tiempo Entre Costuras,” or "The Time in Between" — which some are dubbing Spain’s version of the hit British period drama “Downton Abbey” — is surely inspiring a new generation of sewers, Amazon says, because the machines sell like hotcakes during the show’s Monday night timeslot.
The sales also reflect something perhaps even more surprising: that the recovery this country’s long-troubled economy began last year is continuing to pick up steam.
There’s more evidence beyond sewing machines that consumers are increasingly opening their wallets.
The tradition of giving prized legs of cured ham for Christmas is apparently back in force, with Amazon sales of "jamoneros" — clamps that secure the ham, or "jamon," while slicing — rising 315 percent in December from the previous month.
Official indicators also point to a tentative recovery on the horizon after the longest recession of Spain’s democratic era, prompted by the 2008 bursting of a housing bubble that left the country with millions of unsold homes and banks laden with bad debt.
Exports are strengthening, business confidence is picking up and retail spending inched upward as jobless claims dipped in the final months of last year. However, unemployment remains sky-high at more than 25 percent, with almost 6 million people out of work.
Spain’s conservative government has jumped on the indicators to herald that the worst has passed, with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declaring 2014 “the year of recovery.”
“Unemployment remains a major problem, but the data is very encouraging and we face the future with great optimism,” he announced in Washington on Monday during his first meeting with US President Barack Obama.
Rajoy’s “recovery” sales pitch was bolstered by the carefully choreographed release of more good news just hours earlier in the Spanish parliament, with advance figures showing the economy again gained strength in the final quarter of 2013.
Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said Spain now faces “a recovery, albeit fragile” as he announced gross domestic product grew by 0.3 percent between October and December, an increase on the anemic 0.1 percent rise in output in last year’s third quarter, when the economy first began to creep out of recession.
But analysts are warning against excessive optimism.
Spain’s leaders are being “cautious in the numbers but perhaps too confident in the message,” says economics professor Javier Andres of the University of Valencia.
“We are not totally off the hook,” he adds. “Our debt, both private and public, is so huge that any financial accidents in the world or in Europe may bring back the problems that we had over the last four or five years.”
Next year’s looming general election could also halt the progression of much-needed but deeply unpopular fiscal and structural reforms, Andres says.
The nation’s unemployment rate, which remains the euro zone’s second-highest after Greece, also threatens to stifle any recovery, says Antonio Cabrales, an economics professor at University College London. He believes finding jobs for the nation’s millions of unskilled workers laid off during the crisis will be the biggest hurdle for the Spanish economy in the coming decade.
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Cabrales followed the example of many skilled Spaniards last year by quitting his post as economics professor in Madrid to emigrate to Britain amid the government’s controversial university budget cuts and fears his two teenage children would struggle to find work after graduation.
“It shouldn’t be doubted that we’ve stopped falling,” he says, “but that’s not the same thing as a healthy recovery, especially one that increases jobs and leads to a serious reduction in unemployment.”
“There is a huge mountain of debt, both private and public,” he adds. “We need to shed the burden of the debt and that’s going to punish consumption for the foreseeable future.”
Cabrales says the current economic upswing relies on the strengthening exports sector, which is prone to shocks from international events beyond Spain’s control.
“When the patient is in poor health,” he says, “any virus is going to affect it disproportionately. There’s still enough uncertainly that we could go slightly backward or somewhat worse.”