Spanish jobless rate nears 26%

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Spain’s unemployment rate climbed to nearly 26 percent in the first quarter of 2014 as millions searched in vain for a job in a sluggish recovery from recession.

Despite emerging gingerly from a two-year downturn in mid-2013, official figures Tuesday showed Spain still failing to significantly dent one of the highest jobless rates in the industrialised world.

The unemployment rate climbed to 25.93 percent in the first three months of 2014, up from 25.73 percent in the previous quarter, the National Statistics Institute said.

Many people apparently despaired at the lack of jobs fled the country or stopped looking for work, slashing the workforce by 187,000 people.

In the face of that exodus, the unemployment queue shrank fractionally, by 2,300 people, to 5.93 million.

“The number of unemployed people is coming down, not because they have found a job but because they have stopped looking,” said Sara de la Rica, economics researcher at the Foundation for Applied Economics Studies, FEDEA.

Unemployment remains a daunting challenge for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government, which has made job creation a priority.

The implosion of a decade-long property bubble in 2008 flooded the country in debt, tipped the economy into a double-dip recession and wiped out millions of jobs.

By the first quarter of 2013, the unemployment rate had soared to an unprecedented 26.94 percent, according to latest official figures.

– ‘Exiting the crisis’ –

Budget Minister Cristobal Montoro said the latest jobs report was encouraging.

“We must not tire of saying that, yes, we are coming out of the crisis,” he said, hailing the fall in jobless numbers.

“It would have been better if the fall had been the consequence of job creation,” countered Javier Velazquez, economics lecturer at Madrid’s Complutense University.

Despite signs of a gathering economic recovery, no one is predicting a return anytime soon to the pre-crisis days in 2007 when Spain enjoyed a jobless rate of less than eight percent.

The Bank of Spain has forecast an unemployment rate of 25 percent this year, and 23.8 percent in 2015.

“When will we return to levels of unemployment below 12 percent, like Spain had before?” Toni Ferrer, a spokesman for UGT, Spain’s second-biggest union, said in an interview with public radio network RNE.

One in two jobless workers in Spain do not receive any form of state aid and roughly three million people have been out of work for more than a year, he added.

“Our economy is not heading to a change in cycle,” Ferrer said.

Nevertheless, there are gathering signs that the broader economy is on the mend.

Spain’s total economic output grew at the fastest rate in six years in the first quarter of this year, rising by 0.4 percent on a quarterly basis, the central bank has estimated.

“The wind is blowing in our favour,” Rajoy declared last week, boasting that his government’s labour market reforms and deficit-cutting efforts had rebuilt the economy in record time.

The Spanish leader said economic growth would beat the government’s official forecasts of 1.0 percent in 2014 and 1.5 percent in 2015.

Despite the elusive employment recovery, Rajoy points to a sharp change in the economy’s fortunes since mid-2012 when many believed the nation was on the brink of financial collapse.

The European Central Bank had a hand in helping Spain to avoid a full-blown bailout at the time, soothing investors by promising to buy stricken eurozone members’ sovereign bonds if needed.

But Rajoy’s austerity measures and labour market reforms, which sparked widespread street protests, also helped consolidate financial market support and lower the country’s borrowing costs.