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Here We Go Again

The eurozone crisis is alive and well and living in Spain.

Apr 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 31 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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A phony peace is unlikely to end much better than a phony war. When the European Central Bank (ECB) poured a total of $1.3 trillion in cheap three-year funding into the continent’s financial institutions, that’s what it got. Sure, it beat the alternative. Lehman part deux was staved off yet again. All those billions (and the suggestion of future ECB support that they represented) were enough to restore confidence that Europe’s sickly banking system would not crumble too far or too fast​—​for now. Between the announcement of the first of the bank’s long-term refinancing operations (LTRO) in December and the arrangement of the second at the end of February, many of Europe’s stock markets soared, and yields on much of its sovereign debt fell.

Cartoon of money going down the drain

Gary Locke

But that was then and this is now. Dodging a bullet is not the same as victory. That trillion-and-a-bit bought time as well as confidence, but it bought less breathing space than was first hoped, and what little it did buy was squandered. The markets noticed. The crisis is back. And Spain is taking its turn on the rack. But if it hadn’t been Spain, the fear would simply have settled somewhere else. On Portugal, perhaps, or on Italy, or maybe even France, take your pick.

Given the scale of the problem, the rescue party has been grudging. There was the ill-tempered finalization of the second ($170 billion) Greek rescue in March. There was also the gritted-teeth agreement in the same month to use the eurozone’s new $650 billion permanent bailout fund (the European Stability Mechanism) to complement, rather than replace, the existing “temporary” European Financial Stability Facility. But band-aids costing hundreds of billions are still band-aids, and the eurozone’s key political problem remains unresolved.

Those running the richer, mainly northern member-states continue to be unwilling to risk the wrath of domestic electorates already riled up by bailout after bailout and resistant to further moves towards the closer fiscal union that is the best hope of preserving the single currency in its current form. Many northern voters have grasped that this process would culminate in the creation of a grotesquely expensive bailout regime (“transfer union” is the polite term). Given the vast economic divergence that is found within the eurozone, this would endure through the ages. Over a century and a half after Italian unification, Naples is still not Milan. How long would it take to transform Athens into Berlin?

So for now the “fiscal pact,” the Merkel-driven attempt to enforce a shared budgetary discipline that was drawn up in Brussels in December before being finally agreed to in early March (it has yet to be fully ratified), is all that is going in the way of structural change, and to the extent that it’s going anywhere, it’s going in the wrong direction. The imposition of austerity on the eurozone’s stragglers may be good politics (in Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland anyway), but it is primitive, apothecary economics. Draining the blood out of enfeebled, tottering economies and then​—​fingers crossed​—​hoping that they bounce back into rude health is a dead end, not a discipline.

Consider the sorry spectacle of hopelessly dysfunctional, hopelessly uncompetitive, hopelessly indebted Greece. Its GDP will have fallen by almost a fifth between 2009 and the end of this year. The country is trapped in a spiral in which austerity (however overdue) is dragging its laggard economy ever lower, shrinking the tax base and thereby increasing the fiscal woe that better budgeting is meant to resolve. Greece holds a general election on May 6. With the political establishment under pressure, and radicals polling strongly, a dramatic rejection of the apothecary regime cannot be ruled out. And the markets know this all too well. They also recognize that Portugal, now doing its best to adapt to the single currency for which it was never going to be suited, but struggling badly, is headed towards a second bailout.

Then there’s the other Iberian nation, Spain, the twelfth largest economy in the world and, therefore, potentially much more of a problem than, say, puny Greece, a country that took an infinitely more self-indulgent route to hell. Prior to the crash, Spain’s government finances were decently managed. Debt stands at around 70 percent of GDP, even now a ratio that is far from the worst in the eurozone, but it has been rising rapidly (the budget deficit was 8.5 percent of GDP in 2011). Overspending by this highly decentralized country’s regional authorities is emerging as a major problem, but the most dangerous poison may be brewing in the banks. 

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