BARRY HATTONLISBON, Portugal (AP) â¿¿ Nuno Pinto is 40, out of work and contemplating a step he thinks is the only way out of his family's financial plight: personal bankruptcy. Pinto, like many Portuguese, is financially stranded. He has no income, and gets by with the help of his elderly parents, but repayments on loans he took out before Portugal was engulfed by a financial crisis keep falling due. Personal bankruptcies last year outnumbered company bankruptcies, accounting for 55 percent of all insolvencies in Portugal. It's the first time that has happened and is part of a gloomy catalog of record-breaking statistics. Portugal's vulnerable, debt-riddled economy was crushed last year by Europe's sovereign debt crisis. Portugal had to follow Greece and Ireland and take a â¿¬78 billion ($103 billion) bailout to dodge national bankruptcy. Lenders demanded debt-reducing austerity measures that have helped pitch the country into a steep decline. It is in its second straight year of worsening recession, and unemployment has climbed to a record 14.8 percent. Portugal's continuing troubles could yet provide the spark for another European financial emergency. "I'm up to my neck in debt," Pinto said during a recent visit for legal advice at the Portuguese Consumer Defense Association in Lisbon. He's close to defaulting on his mortgage and, along with his partner and 9-year-old daughter, faces imminent eviction. "I'm here to see if I can get what's my last chance â¿¿ personal bankruptcy," says Pinto, a burly man with gray hair and beard. Gaining insolvency through the courts would allow him to renegotiate a special repayment plan with his creditors, warding off his most pressing problems. Stories like Pinto's aren't hard to find these days in Portugal, a country of 10.6 million people enduring its worst hardship in recent memory. The Portuguese are paying a heavy price for their country's failure to move with the times over the past decade. Portugal's calcified economy has produced almost no meaningful growth since the turn of the century.
Pinto is one of the more than 670,000 Portuguese who last year defaulted on their loans â¿¿ a 5 percent jump on the previous year. Defaults on consumer credit amounted to â¿¬1.53 billion ($2 billion) in January, a 14 percent increase since last May's bailout. It's the highest level of unpaid private debt since the Bank of Portugal started keeping detailed records 15 years ago.Total debt â¿¿ that taken on by the state, companies, and individuals â¿¿ stood at 418 percent of annual GDP last year. The country has never been so deep in the red. Such perilous levels of debt have lumbered banks with piles of bad loans and raised the specter of Portugal needing to ask for more international financial aid that could detonate another bout of eurozone volatility, even though Portugal accounts for less than 2 percent of the 17-nation bloc's GDP. The Consumer Defense Association, a privately-funded body, says that between 2010 and 2011 the number of requests for help it received jumped 60 percent to more than 23,000 families. The problem isn't just unemployment. Austerity measures have included public sector pay cuts. The government has pruned welfare benefits and increased sales tax, including a hike in the tax on electricity to 23 percent from 6 percent. Old certainties and expectations, such as inflation-linked pay increases and automatic promotions, are gone. All these austerity measures have combined to throw housekeeping budgets out of kilter to a point where families' disposable income â¿¿ what's left for discretionary spending after taxes and bills â¿¿ has shrunk so much that for an increasing number of Portuguese there's little left for basics like food and clothes. Natalia Nunes, one of the consumer association's lawyers, says the middle class is hurting the most. The typical family reaching out for help has parents aged 35-45 with one child, together earning more than â¿¬1,500 ($2,000) a month.
"I recall a family with a child that came in here the other day and they told me that they start out the month with four or five euros," Nunes said. "We hear these kinds of stories every day."Caritas Portuguesa, a Catholic charity, reported this month that requests for help, including food aid, almost doubled last year to more than 95,000. And in January and February this year, requests were up 46.5 percent on last year. The needy now include architects and lawyers, it said. Default, foreclosure and repossession are spreading at an alarming rate. The tax authorities sold almost 28,500 properties last year to recoup tax debts, up from just over 27,000 in 2010. So far this year the seizures are occurring at an even faster rate, with almost 6,000 in the first five weeks. Annualized, that translates into nearly 36,000 for 2012. Banks trying to offload heaps of returned property are increasingly turning to auction houses. Euroestates, one of the country's leading house auctioneers, says 90 percent of its customer base is banks. The number of auctions it holds has tripled since 2008, to almost 30 a year. In 2008 it auctioned about 600 properties; last year it sold some 2,000. Luis Sequeira Fernandes, an attorney who runs one of Portugal's biggest law firms that collect debts for court-ordered judgments, says he is increasingly finding that debtors have no assets left to confiscate. "I used to claw back around 60 percent (of money owed). Now it's about 30-40 percent," Sequeira Fernandes said. Eviction procedures, representing about half the debts he tries to recoup, are becoming riskier. Sequeira Fernandes has had a gun pointed at him by an indignant homeowner and threats of violence aren't as rare as they used to be. "People are getting desperate and much, much more aggressive than before," he says, even though Portugal hasn't seen any of the violent street protests witnessed in Greece.
David Justino, a stocky 32-year-old locksmith, has worked with debt-collection bailiffs for the past eight years. He says he occasionally pulls on a bulletproof vest for what he fears may be hazardous jobs, but people rarely go beyond threats when he forces entry to their homes.His work can, nevertheless, be unpleasant. "If I was just evicting adults it wouldn't be a problem for me," he says. "What bothers me is when there are small children or handicapped people. It's not nice." Often, by the time the bailiffs turn up at their door, defaulting homeowners have absconded. Sparks flew in a dingy fourth-floor corridor of an apartment block near Lisbon recently as Justino used a power tool to cut through a door. Nobody was home, and a layer of dust suggested the owners of the 3-bedroom apartment had been gone some time. They also appeared to have made a hasty exit: a car key was on a living room table, next to a Wole Soyinka paperback; one bedroom had posters of Shakira and Robbie Williams on the walls; another had a stroller next to a Barbie doll lying on the floor â¿¿ all evidence that a family once made this its home.