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Spain unemployment hits record levels

New figures show that Spanish unemployment levels have hit record levels, with nearly a quarter of the labour force unable to find work.

The news comes hours after the country's credit rating was cut two notches to "BBB " by ratings agency Standard & Poor's.

According to the new data released on Friday, unemployment levels hit 24.44 per cent at the end of March, the highest level since a statistical series began in 1996. The rate for people under 25 years of age was 52 per cent, up from 48.5 per cent in the previous quarter.

The number of unemployed people in the country has now risen to 5,639,500 people, according to the national statistics institute. This represents a rise of 365,900 from the last quarter.

Total unemployment has risen 1.5 per cent, from a level of 22.9 per cent of the labour force in the final quarter of 2011.

The institute also said that the number of households with every adult member unemployed rose by 153,400 to 1.7 million.

Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the 17-member eurozone.

"The figures are terrible for everyone and terrible for the government,' Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, the country's foreign minister, told Spanish National Radio. "Spain is in a crisis of enormous magnitude."

Credit rating cut

S&P cut the country's rating to "BBB " from its previous level of "A", saying that it expected the Spanish economy to shrink over the next two years, but that it did not expect a sovereign debt default.

The agency also cut the country's short-term rating, and placed it on negative outlook, meaning that there is a risk of further downgrades to come.

"We believe that the Kingdom of Spain's budget trajectory will likely deteriorate against a background of economic contraction in contrast with our previous projections," it said in a statement on Thursday.

"At the same time, we see an increasing likelihood that Spain's government will need to provide further fiscal support to the banking sector."

Myriam Fernandez de Heredia, the company's sovereign ratings director, told a conference call, however, that there was "no likelihood of a payment default".

S&P predicts the Spanish economy will shrink by 1.5 per cent this year, having previously forecasted growth of 0.3 per cent. Spain's new conservative government has forecast that the economy will contract by 1.7 per cent this year.

In 2013 it expects the economy to contract 0.5 per cent, having previously predicted growth of one per cent.

The Spanish central bank confirmed this week that Spain is in recession for the second time in three years.

The "BBB " rating is still in investment grade, three levels above junk status. Nevertheless, the lower rating could increase Spain's borrowing costs because investors will demand higher interest rates to compensate for the perceived increase in risk.

S&P's cut in Spain's rating was not unexpected. Ratings agency Moody's had cut the country's rating by two notches in early February, citing the country's difficult fiscal outlook.

Government response

The Spanish government responded to the cut by S&P by saying that the agency did not properly take into account reforms put in place to reactivate the economy.
"They haven't taken into consideration the reforms put forward by the Spanish government, which will have a strong impact on Spain's economic situation," Esther Barranco, a government spokeswoman, told the Reuters news agency.

The agency did praise some of the government's measures aimed at bolstering the economy.

"Despite the unfavourable economic conditions, we believe that the new government has been front-loading and implementing a comprehensive set of structural reforms, which should support economic growth over the longer term," said S&P.

It added that Spain's commercial banks are increasingly leaning to official sources for funds as they struggle to deal with piles of bad loans, especially in real estate.

S&P also pointed out, however, that Spanish incomes have been falling, businesses have been rapidly cutting debt rather than investing, and that the government plans to cut expenses in order to balance its budget.

Spain's heavy budget cuts are aimed primarily at slashing the government's deficit from its current level of 8.5 per cent of economic output to the maximum level set by the European Union of three per cent by 2013.

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