The Magazine

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. 

Like just about everywhere else, Spain saw a massive construction and real estate boom in the 2000s. This was fueled by low interest rates that reflected conditions in the eurozone’s Franco-German core rather than Spanish reality, as well as the belief, cheer-led by Brussels, that the economies of the currency union’s members were converging when, particularly as compared with Germany, they were doing anything but. 

The bust that followed that boom took down a large chunk of the Spanish economy (unemployment stands at 23 percent, over 50 percent among the under-25s, a disaster exacerbated both by Spain’s sclerotic labor market and the malign impact of apothecary economics). There will be more misery to come. The IMF is forecasting that Spanish GDP will shrink by 1.8 percent in 2012. If Ireland is any precedent, and if the apothecaries have their way (the proposed deficit reduction amounts to a daunting 5.5 percent of GDP over this year and next), Spanish real estate prices could fall by another third. Should that happen, the country’s battered banks are (according to Open Europe, a mildly Euroskeptic think tank) likely to take a hit too large for cash-strapped Spain to cover by itself.

And the knife has further to twist. When the first LTRO was announced, French president Nicolas Sarkozy had a bright idea. Each state could sell its bonds to its newly flush banks. At first glance, such a trade would not only be patriotic, but profitable. The yield on debt issued by the eurozone’s struggling sovereign borrowers would comfortably exceed the bargain rate that the banks were paying to borrow from the ECB. And that’s the “carry trade” that Spain’s banks made. Indeed, in the view of Open Europe, Spanish banks have been the principal (“essentially the only”) buyers of Spanish government debt since December. But these banks are fragile and frighteningly reliant on ECB support (their borrowing from the central bank almost doubled between February and March). What would happen if their vulnerability to Spain’s mounting economic distress, not to speak of their specific exposure to Spain’s real estate nightmare, meant that those banks could no longer keep buying? How would Spain’s bills then be paid? After all, membership in a currency union means that Spain (unlike, say, the U.K.) can no longer print its own way out of a liquidity crunch. As the University of Leuven’s Paul De Grauwe pointed out last year, a “liquidity crisis, if strong enough, [could] force the Spanish government into default.” Indeed it could. Spain has already (and wisely) issued about half the debt it will need for 2012, but the rest?

Wait, there’s more. Spain’s borrowing costs are rising (yields on its 10-year bonds have been testing, and sometimes breaking, the toxic 6 percent barrier), to a level that may not be sustainable. That’s bad enough, but those higher yields also mean that the value of Spanish bonds bought by Spanish banks playing that Sarkozy carry trade will have been falling, with unpleasant implications for their beleaguered balance sheets at exactly the wrong time. If you are looking for a fine example of a vicious circle, this will do nicely.

Optimists will counter that the European Central Bank can again help out. And they are right. As an institution subject to relatively low levels of direct democratic control, it is better placed to ignore the concerns of northern voters than many eurozone institutions. Meanwhile the IMF’s managing director is in full telethon mode. Maybe the IMF/G20 meetings (underway in Washington, D.C., as I write) will see agreements to fund a firewall large enough to reassure. Maybe, maybe, maybe .  .  . 

Outside Spain, Portugal, and the carcass that was Greece, the theoretically praiseworthy reforms launched by the eurozone’s proconsul in Italy, the technocrat prime minister Mario Monti, are beginning to run into serious opposition. The country’s planned move to a balanced budget in 2013 has also been postponed by two years (for now). New spending cuts will add to the economy’s pain. Italy has revised its forecasts for 2012’s decline in GDP from 0.4 percent to 1.2 percent, but that’s a sunny projection when contrasted with the fall of 1.9 percent forecast by the IMF.

Then there’s France, facing a presidential election in which the increasingly clear favorite (as I write), Socialist François Hollande, is clearly no great fan of the fiscal pact. And finally there’s the awful, undeniable fact that lies at the core of this tragedy: One size does not fit all. Laurel cannot wear the same suit as Hardy. Portugal is not Finland. Greece is not Germany. A shared currency designed to bring nations together is tearing them apart. Confining them in a monetary union that, as constituted today, cannot realistically cope with the profound differences that define their economies is an insult to common sense, an affront to democracy, and a rejection of elementary decency. Those countries it does not loot, it will sentence to stagnation and worse.

No matter: Whether due to the (not unreasonable) fear of what a breakup could mean, or to fanaticism, careerism, or simple, dumb inertia, the eurozone’s political class is sticking with its funny money. As it does so, other Europeans are quietly passing their own judgment. Stories of capital flight from Greece are not new, but a recent analysis of eurozone central bank data by Bloomberg News appears to show that euros are flowing out of Italy and Spain and into Germany, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg at an accelerating and unprecedented pace.

Just a few weeks ago, Mario Monti declared that the eurozone crisis was “almost over.”

Not yet, I reckon.

Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.

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