Portugal and 10 other members of the EU have started changing over from their national currencies to the single European currency, the euro, for all transactions as part of their participation in the EMU. Use of the euro began in January 1999, although only for electronic bank transfers and for accounting purposes. Euro coins and bills will be issued in 2002, at which time the Portuguese escudo will cease to be legal currency. The EU members have established the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt,
|Exchange rates: Portugal|
|euros per US$1|
|Note: Rates prior to 1999 are in Portuguese escudos per US$.|
|SOURCE: CIA World Factbook 2001 [ONLINE].|
Germany, responsible for all EU monetary policies . Since 1999, the control over Portuguese monetary issues, including interest rates and the money supply regulation, has been also transferred to the ECB.
Although Portugal qualified for the initial stage of the EMU in 1998, its public finances are still considered quite unstable. In 2000, the ECB decision to hold interest rates steady was welcomed in Portugal, but financial policy challenges were still very serious. The late 1990s, years of rapid economic growth and increasing tax revenues, allowed the government to boost public spending growth in 1998 and 1999 and still meet its deficit reduction targets. But revenue growth slowed dramatically in 2000 due to the domestic economic slowdown and the government's highly controversial energy policy.
By allowing the rate of the petrol tax to fluctuate disproportionately to oil prices, the government hoped to prevent a dramatic rise in oil prices that might fuel consumer price inflation . That policy, however, turned into a massive drain of the public finances while budgeted revenue targets were missed by about 0.7 percent of GDP. The government, quite luckily, met its budget deficit target of 1.5 percent of GDP in 2000, as required by the EU standards, but that was only thanks to the boost of US$360 million from the sale of 4 operating licenses for third generation mobile phone operators. It was otherwise estimated that the deficit would have been almost 2 percent of GDP.
The weaknesses of Portugal's public finances were analyzed in 2000 in reports by the European Commission (the EU executive body), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), all of which offered a gloomy account of the situation. The government admits that, with the economy entering a period of slower growth, it has few options but to implement structural spending reforms (public spending cuts) if it is to meet future deficit reduction targets. A new public finance committee was scheduled to present proposals on spending cuts in the first half of 2001.
Financial markets in Portugal are doing considerably well by most accounts, although important pieces of legislation regarding their development are still pending in parliament. The Lisbon Stock Exchange's (Bolsa de Valores de Lisboa, or BVL) capitalization and turnover have grown rapidly in the late 1990s, fueled by the govern-ment's massive privatization program and by the Portuguese people's growing enthusiasm for share ownership. The privatization of a 30 percent stake in the electricity utility EDP in June of 1997 substantially increased the exchange capitalization and liquidity , and the number of shareholders increased from 1 percent to 6 percent of the Portuguese population. This considerable growth in activity, value, and capitalization transformed the exchange from an emerging market into a developed one. The launching of a new market in Oporto in 1996, which merged with the Lisbon one in 1999, gave an additional impetus to stock market trading.
After dropping slightly in 1995, the BVL price index (the Portuguese counterpart for the United States' Dow Jones) increased by 32 percent in 1996, by 65 percent in 1997, by 26 percent in 1998, and by 10.2 percent in 1999. It reached its record high of 6,511 on March 3, 2000. The increase was driven by the soaring prices of a limited number of telecom, media, and Internet stocks, although concerns in Europe and the United States about overvaluation of Internet-related stock has since led to a dramatic cooling of market enthusiasm for the "new economy" stocks. The stock market also experienced a still rising tide of public offerings in this sector in 2000, including PT Multimedia and PT.com (the media and Internet subsidiaries of PT), Sonae.com (the Internet division of the other major domestic telecom operator, Sonae), and Impresa (a major media group). Nonetheless, the Portuguese stock market suffers from a lack of liquidity similar to that of other European exchanges, reflecting its disproportionate dependence on a small number of blue-chip (large and profitable company) stocks, the most influential of which, PT and EDP, are still largely controlled by the government.
The long expected New Market (Novo Mercado) for small, high-growth companies, a replica of the American Nasdaq market, failed to launch by its planned deadline of December 2000. The disappointment in Portugal was considerable as this failure was largely regarded as a sign that the BVL was lagging behind at a time of rapid transformation of European securities markets. BVL executives decided that an alliance with other exchanges would keep it from being left out of this period of European expansion. Negotiations were started for an association with the Euronext exchange group, which serves to unite stock exchanges in Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris, although there were no guarantees that the larger markets would agree to accept Portugal's much smaller exchange as an equal. In late 2000, the BVL also struck an agreement with the Spanish derivatives market, MEFF, to launch trading in financial products listed in each other's markets. The Portuguese stock market commission declared that in January 2001 the exchange would adopt several new indicators, with the current index, the BVL 30, being replaced by the Portuguese Stock Index 30. It would also be joined by other existing indexes. The indexes planned to be included in the deal are PSI 20, PSI General, PSI TMT (technology, media, and telecommunications), PSI NM (New Market, as soon as it becomes operational), and another new index for medium-sized service and industrial companies. This change has been seen largely as a cosmetic measure, however. There have been many discussions of fundamental change at the BVL, but little has been decided upon, and the market continues to suffer from large gaps between the intentions of its executives, the needed but still pending legislation, and actual achievements.