by Percy S. Mistry.
How did it happen?
The worst financial crisis in the western world for nearly 80 years broke in September 2008.
It required banking/financial systems to be supported and recapitalised by governments across the EU and in the US.
In June 2009 it became apparent that the peripheral countries of the Eurozone (Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland) were grossly over-indebted.
Yet in some instances (Spain) their public debt to GDP ratios happened to be lower than those of the US, France, the UK and Germany.
The continued viability of their public finances depended entirely on markets being willing to refinance them with cheap money.
But, when markets scrutinised the sustainability of their fiscal positions, they baulked from refinancing except at punitive rates.
CDS spreads (against Germany as a benchmark) of peripheral Eurozone countries (PIGS or Club Med) debt began widening relentlessly.
Global financial markets began to price in an escalating risk of partial/full voluntary/involuntary default on PIGS bonds since December 2009.
Contrary to first impressions, except for Ireland, that was a result not just of the financial crisis and bank recapitalisation demands on the fiscus.
It became apparent instead that bank recapitalisation demands on public finance were only the last straws that broke the camel's back.
Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy, as a direct consequence of joining the Eurozone, had been running up unsustainable fiscal deficits since 2000.
Ireland had not. It suffered because the bailout of its disproportionately large banking system caused its public debt to rise astronomically.
PIGS became over-indebted despite the supposed self-imposed discipline adopted by the Eurozone of prohibiting fiscal deficits >3% of GDP.
That discipline was violated by almost all Eurozone members, beginning with France and Germany, but more egregiously by the PIGS.
To make matters worse, however, the PIGS were also running increasingly large current account deficits (with Germany, France, China).
Though countries like France (and to a lesser extent) Germany were fiscal sinners, they were at least running current account surpluses.
PIGS had access to excessively cheap public and private money available on terms totally inappropriate to their economic circumstances.
Given their inherent risks, which markets mispriced completely, their borrowing costs should have been 300-500 bp higher than Germany's.
Instead, they were virtually the same for nearly a decade. That relieved market-induced pressure on PIGS' governments to behave responsibly.
Consequently, their public expenditures after 2000 ballooned out of all proportion to their intrinsic capacity to fund them from tax revenues.
Such expenditures became almost wholly dependent on access to increasing amounts of cheap public borrowing from capital markets.
In response to access to excessively cheap money, wages in the PIGS rose across the board as did growth in public sector employment.
With the financial crisis triggering bank recapitalisation needs, on top of this unsustainable structure, the edifice began to crumble.
The first early warning signals became apparent in December 2009 but the dam broke in mid-2010 with the first Greek bailout.
How has the Eurozone crisis been handled?
Extremely ineptly; indeed very foolishly, by sophisticated Eurozone authorities (political, fiscal and monetary) that should have known better.
Eurozone leaders learned nothing from the preceding debt crises in Latin America (1982-87, 1994-95) and Asia (1997-2000).
They went through avoidable phases of serial denial that there was a structural debt (solvency) crisis that could spread via contagion.
They treated it as a liquidity crisis that could be dealt with by temporary patch-ups of additional money combined with fiscal restraint.
They reiterated their commitment to ensuring there would be no default - partial or full, voluntary or involuntary - by any Eurozone member.
They believed that their remedial measures would stop the crisis from ballooning beyond the first bailout package for Greece.
They were totally wrong. That package did nothing to convince markets that Eurozone leaders understood the nature/severity of the problem.
In fact, the inadequacy of that first bailout package -- which did not provide enough money for sufficiently long - became quickly apparent.
Eurozone leaders were fixated on debt-affected PIGS being forced to live within their means through indefinite austerity without end.
Debt recovery/sustainability models did not provide sufficient new money, or permit debt restructuring, in ways that would restore stability.
Least of all were bailout packages designed to restore growth in a conscionable period of time that would be socially/politically acceptable.
Without financial system (and borrowing cost) stability, and absent growth, debt problems can never become better. They can only worsen.
Instead, as a result of poor design, all the bailouts did (except for Ireland) was to add new debt to bad debt and reduce growth prospects.
To exemplify: In mid-2009 the debt/GDP ratio for Greece was 115% of GDP and the debt service ratio about 11% of GDP.
But, by October 2011 the debt/GDP ratio for Greece was 161% of GDP and the debt service ratio nearly 20% of GDP.
It is projected with the third bailout to rise to 185% of GDP (although debt service will be lowered to 16%) before it comes down again.
In the meantime, over the last 32 months, the Greek economy has shrunk in size by almost 17% in nominal terms. It will be 1/5 th less in 2012.
Such inane 'remedies' do not solve debt problems. They only aggravate and exacerbate them.
While behaving in this absurd fashion Eurozone leaders repeatedly asserted for two years that they would do everything in their power to:
- Maintain the credibility of the Euro while ensuring that every member stayed in the Eurozone
- Not allow any default of publicly issued bonds to occur; and
- Do everything possible to avoid contagion spreading beyond PIGS (even as it became clear that markets were worried about Italy.
Instead they achieved the exact opposite of all three objectives through their inability to understand the implications of what they were doing.
Though now contrite and claiming to have learnt a few lessons from their serial bungling over 30 months Eurozone leaders have no solution.
The EFSF facility they created is woefully underfunded. It can barely deal with financing the third Greek bailout.
The idea of leveraging it or using it as a partial guarantee facility is absurd since it would add to risk and uncertainty not resolve them.
Yet over-indebted governments (including France and Germany) would have to issue more public debt in order to fund the EFSF properly.
That would simply mean requiring their fragile, near-bankrupt, banking systems (or the ECB) or global markets to buy more Eurozone debt.
Except for Germany (and even that will be in doubt soon) the market has no appetite for taking on more Eurozone debt given its risks.
Contagion has spread from the periphery and now lodges at the core of the Eurozone economy in which Italy is the third largest member.
What could have been resolved with about 300 billion euro in additional financing in mid-2010 is now a problem that may require 2 trillion euro.
Where are we now?
Over 35 EU/Eurozone summits in 30 months have resolved nothing. They have made matters worse; despite Herculean exertions!
Right now Greece is in 'effective' default; though markets are overlooking that because of the implications of CDS contracts being triggered.
Its borrowing costs for refinancing its debt would exceed 30% if it had any access to private markets; which it does not.
Any refinancing of, or addition to, Greek debt can now only be financed by the ECB; which the Germans will not permit the ECB to do.
Meanwhile the Greek banking system is bankrupt. Indeed the entire Eurozone banking system's credibility/stability/solvency is in doubt.
Today an outstanding portfolio of about 11-12 trillion euro in Eurozone debt - of which about 80% is held by EU firms - is souring relentlessly.
About 7 trillion euro of that portfolio is sufficiently affected by contagion to require provisioning (France and Belgium may soon be added).
About 5 trillion euro of Eurozone high-risk-debt is currently held by EU banks, insurance companies, pension funds and individuals.
That sovereign debt, which is supposed to constitute the 'safest' component of any asset portfolio, now constitutes perhaps the riskiest element.
That reality inverts the whole basis of banking/financial system soundness and stability across Europe (including the UK).
It compounds the problem of calculating capital adequacy requirements for these banking systems and puts regulators in a quandary.
Ireland's bailout programme is working but could be derailed by what is happening in the rest of Europe.
Portugal's programme is not working as intended. But nobody is talking about it because it pales in comparison with Italy and Greece.
Italy's outstanding public debt will soon cross 2 trillion euro (120% of GDP) and its debt service payments amount to around 300 billion euro per year.
That is made up of about 120 billion euro in interest payments and 180 billion euro in principal repayments. Average duration is 5 years.
Public debt service in Italy now amounts to around 17% of GDP and will rise to 20% unless Italy's debt is dramatically restructured.
Italy now needs to borrow about 40 billion a month euro (gross) and about 28 billion euro a month net in private markets to refinance its debt.
The world is holding its breath with every auction of Italian public debt (3-8 billion euro per week) any of which could trigger accidental default.
The cost of refinancing Italy's public debt has risen from around 4% a year ago to around 7% now. That adds 20 billion euro a year to its debt.
Meantime the Italian economy is flat-lining and its capacity to service additional debt is diminishing despite its running a primary balance.
Banks around the world are dumping their holdings of Italian public debt but there is no buyer other than the ECB because of the risk.
The ECB's capacity to refinance Greek, Italian and Portuguese debt is limited and constrained by Germany's unwillingness to consider that.
Contagion from Italy is now beginning to affect Spain and France which is supposed to be a bulwark for the EFSF's borrowing capacity.
The resulting gridlock is pushing the entire Eurozone system toward a catastrophic denouement with a binary outcome. Either:
- Crisis-induced progress toward fiscal union with national sovereign bonds being replaced by a single Eurozone bond with a joint/several guarantee, or
- Sudden disorderly collapse of the Eurozone with unimaginable fallout and consequences that would trigger a global double-dip recession.
Such a recession would last for a minimum of 2-3 years and would probably be quickly followed by a similar debt crisis in the US.
The resulting fallout of disorderly Eurozone break-up could trigger a break-up or restructuring of the larger EU as well.
So where do we go from here?
With the foregoing in mind it seems absurd that the world is waiting with bated breath to see what the new technocratic governments in Greece (Papademos) and Italy (Monti) will actually achieve by way of structural reform and increased debt servicing capability in coming months.
These technocratic governments inject new credibility but lack political and social legitimacy. They have been appointed not elected.
It remains to be seen how long their technocratic legitimacy holds out without the backing of gradually earned political/social legitimacy.
The risk is that if the ministrations of these technocratic governments (which their societies believe have been imposed on them from the EU above) do not work and bear fruit relatively soon (the probability is that they won't), public patience with them will melt.
Will they be able to convince electorates to accept the inevitability of austerity without growth for the indefinite future?
The next Greek crisis is perhaps 10-12 weeks away.
The next Italian crisis could be triggered by any one of the upcoming weekly auctions of Italian government debt.
Despite these rather obvious realities, global markets deem to be reacting in dream-like hope and optimism that all will be well.
There is of course a solution at hand; and the only one that will work because all the other options seem to have been exhausted.
That option requires Germany to reconsider its refusal to bear its large share of the fiscal burden that will come with Eurozone fiscal union.
It requires political/social willingness on the part of rich northern Eurozone members to finance fiscal transfers to poorer southern members through an exponential expansion of structural funds, currently applied to help develop more rapidly the poorer regions of the EU.
Reciprocally, it requires other Eurozone countries to relinquish fiscal, and a great deal of political, sovereignty immediately; in order to assure global markets of their commitment to structural reform, restoration of competitiveness, and relentless pursuit of fiscal/monetary discipline.
It requires all unwanted national sovereign bonds of Eurozone members to be replaced by a single Eurobond that is jointly and severally guaranteed and underpinned by the weight and ability of the ECB behind it to print money if necessary to ensure that such bonds are honoured.
This solution would resolve both the over-indebtness problem of the Eurozone and the problem of banking system collapse at a single stroke.
If it were adopted the need to provide for risky Eurozone debt and recapitalise (yet again) the EU banking system would disappear.
Yet, this is the one solution that keeps being discarded because of legitimate German constitutional, judicial and political constraints.
They inhibit movement in such a direction regardless of the consequences for the Eurozone, the EU, and mostly Germany itself.
It is like witnessing a repeat of 1939; not of conquest but of mindless destruction. But, this time with money rather than tanks being involved.
If that only workable solution continues to be discarded, the other possibility that will manifest itself is the disorderly break-up of the Eurozone; simply because its orderly break-up defies contemplation and imagination.
Talk of Greece being ejected from the Eurozone, or of Germany departing from it voluntarily, is fanciful simply because neither can afford to bear the costs of the consequences that will follow, regardless of what their populations and political leaders may believe or think (though 'thought' seems to be conspicuously absent from the process just now). Neither can their neighbours, regardless of what they may think.
Yet it is not unimaginable that a break-up will be forced on Eurozone members by global markets if the only workable solution continues to be ruled out as it seems to be repeatedly by the German Chancellor. But she has changed her mind so often the hope is she will yet again.
A disorderly break-up may result in a reversion to national currencies; which would be better than members trying to retain some semblance of the Euro through separate residual monetary unions of more compatible economies.
That would probably require four different Euros (for the super-efficient Northern economies a Baltic Euro, for the relatively efficient middling economies a Franco-Euro; for the newly acceding countries an Eastern-Euro and for the inefficient, uncompetitive Club-Med economies, a PIGS-Euro). Other than the first, none of the others would be credible for holding as reserves, or for trading significantly in global currency markets.
Finally, bear in mind that we have spoken of only the public debt problem in the Eurozone.
Should the unthinkable (but increasingly likely) disorderly break-up happen, the public debt problem will be accompanied by an unresolved private debt problem throughout the Eurozone of equally monumental proportions! That really will break the system and the banks!