The Mother of All Bubbles: Huge National Debts Could Push Euro Zone into Bankruptcy
Greece is only the beginning. The world's leading economies have long lived beyond their means, and the financial crisis caused government debt to swell dramatically. Now the bill is coming due, but not all countries will be able to pay it. By SPIEGEL staff.
Savvas Robolis is one of Greece's most distinguished economics professors. He advises cabinet ministers and union bosses. He is also a successful author and a frequent guest on the country's highest-rated talk shows. But for several days now, it has been clear to Robolis, 64, the elder statesman of Greece's left-wing academia, that he no longer has any influence.
His opposite number, Poul Thomsen, the Danish chief negotiator for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is currently something of a chief debt inspector in the virtually bankrupt Mediterranean country. He recently took three-quarters of an hour to meet with Robolis and Giannis Panagopoulos, the president of the powerful trade union confederation GSEE. At 9 a.m. on Tuesday of last week, the men met behind closed doors in a conference room in the basement of the Grande Bretagne, a luxury hotel in Athens. The mood, says Robolis, was "icy."
Robolis told the IMF negotiator that radical wage cuts would be toxic for Greece's already comatose economy. He said that the Greeks, given their weak competitive position, primarily needed innovation and investment, and that a one-sided fixation on cleaning up the national budget would destroy the last vestiges of economic strength in Greece. The IMF, according to Robolis, could not make the same mistake as it did in Argentina in the early 1990s. "Don't put Greece on ice!" the professor warned.
But the tall Dane was not very impressed. He has negotiated aid packages with Iceland, Ukraine and Romania in the past, and when he and his 20-member delegation landed in Athens on April 18, they had come to impose a rigorous austerity program on the Greeks, not to devise long-term growth programs.
Thomsen's mandate is to save the euro zone. And any Greek resistance is futile.
Time to Foot the Bill
Robolis versus Thomsen. For the moment, this is the last skirmish between the old ideas and ideals of prosperity paid for on credit and a generous state, against the new realization that the time has come to foot the bill. The only question is: Who's paying?
The euro zone is pinning its hopes on Thomsen and his team. His goal is to achieve what Europe's politicians are not confident they can do on their own, namely to bring discipline to a country that, through manipulation and financial inefficiency, has plunged the European single currency into its worst-ever crisis.
If the emergency surgery isn't successful, there will be much more at stake than the fate of the euro. Indeed, Europe could begin to erode politically as a result. The historic project of a united continent, promoted by an entire generation of politicians, could suffer irreparable damage, and European integration would suffer a serious setback -- perhaps even permanently.
And the global financial world would be faced with a new Lehman Brothers, the American investment bank that collapsed in September 2008, taking the global economy to the brink of the abyss. It was only through massive government bailout packages that a collapse of the entire financial system was averted at the time.
A similar scenario could unfold once again, except that this time it would be happening at a higher level, on the meta-level of exorbitant government debt. This fear has had Europe's politicians worried for weeks, but their crisis management efforts have failed. For months, they have been unable to contain the Greek crisis.
Attacked by Speculators
European governments agree that saving Greece is imperative. They are worried about the euro, and the Germans are concerned about their banks, which, lured by the prospect of high returns, have become saturated with government bonds from Greece and other southern European countries. They are also terrified that after a Greek bankruptcy, other weak euro countries could be attacked by speculators and forced to their knees.
There are, in fact, striking similarities to the Lehman bankruptcy. This isn't exactly surprising. The financial crisis isn't over by a long shot, but has only entered a new phase. Today, the world is no longer threatened by the debts of banks but by the debts of governments, including debts which were run up rescuing banks just a year ago.
The banking crisis has turned into a crisis of entire nations, and the subprime mortgage bubble into a government debt bubble. This is why precisely the same questions are being asked today, now that entire countries are at risk of collapse, as were being asked in the fall of 2008 when the banks were on the brink: How can the calamity be prevented without laying the ground for an even bigger disaster? Can a crisis based on debt be solved with even more debt? And who will actually rescue the rescuers in the end, the ones who overreached?
Take, for example, the countries that will pay for the Greek bailout. The country could need as much as 120 billion or 130 billion -- or even more -- over the next three years.
At the weekend, euro-zone members and the IMF agreed on a 110 billion bailout package over three years. The EU will provide 80 billion in loans, with Germany's share over three years amounting to 22 billion, including 8.4 billion in the first year alone. Greece will have to impose further austerity measures in return. Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou said they would involve "great sacrifices," saying: "It is an unprecedented support package for an unprecedented effort by the Greek people."
Euro-zone leaders will formally launch the package, which still needs to be approved by the German Bundestag and a number of other euro-zone parliaments, at a summit on Friday. The aid will be released ahead of May 19, when Greece next needs to make debt repayments.
Caught in the Maelstrom
The money would be well invested if Athens succeeds in getting its state finances under control within the three-year time period, through rigid austerity measures and successful economic management.
But if it doesn't? Then the money, or at least some of it, will be gone. Then all the things that the rescue measures were intended to prevent could in fact transpire: Lenders would have to write off their claims, banks would have to be rescued once again, speculators would force the rest of the weak PIIGS nations (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) to their knees -- and the euro would fall apart.
If that happened, the rescuers themselves would be at risk. Even Germany, in international terms a country with relatively sound finances, has amassed enormous debts. If it became caught up in the maelstrom of a euro crisis, the consequences would be unforeseeable. The credit rating of Europe's strongest economy would be downgraded and Germany would have to pay higher and higher interest rates for more and more loans. Future generations would shoulder an even greater burden as a result.
But what is the alternative? Should Europe simply allow Greece to go bankrupt instead? In that case, the possible future scenario would happen right away instead.
One might argue that it is better to get things over quickly, even if that is painful, rather than prolonging the agony. But one can also hope that everything will turn out for the best in the end. The euro-zone countries prefer to hope, which is why they have agree to a rescue program that will provide Greece with the funds it can no longer borrow on the open market, now that it is being forced to pay such high interest rates.
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