By the time you read this, Greece may have defaulted on its debt. Or it may be preparing to default, but without the D-word. Most likely it will be negotiating another rescue package, but it may still be fighting to secure the latest payment under its existing bailout. Only one thing looks certain as I write. The eurozone crisis will not be over.
It’s been a long, hard journey since the first Greek bailout just over a year ago, a €110 billion loan package from the European Union (€80 billion) and International Monetary Fund (€30 billion) secured by pledges of drastic austerity. A €750 billion European Financial Stability Facility was announced a little later. The prospect of its billions’ being available to any eurozone country that ran into difficulties was intended to “shock and awe” (yes, that term again) the financial markets into calm.
It did not work out. Both Ireland and Portugal have since had to be bailed out. The destructive contradictions of the one-size-fits-all currency remain unresolved. The damage they caused is unrepaired. Then there’s the fact that the very nature of the eurozone leaves its weaker members vulnerable to fears of default. Most of their debt is in euros, and, for all practical purposes, the euro is a foreign currency. Once investors move out of, say, Irish bonds to safer euro debt elsewhere, all that Ireland can do to lure them back is increase interest rates and tighten its belt yet again. If that doesn’t work, the cash will run out.
Belgian economist Paul de Grauwe argues that a liquidity crunch of this type could force an otherwise solvent country into default. Maybe; but in Greece’s case that’s beside the point. The country has, financially speaking, ceased to be a going concern. Neither the 2010 bailout nor the (partial) introduction of austerity measures that are already at the limit of the politically possible have been enough to do the trick. Indeed, by depressing domestic demand, the latter have — at least in the short term — made the budgetary situation even worse. Tax revenues have been hit by the slump in an economy that shrank by over 4 percent last year, and will likely dwindle by another 3.5 percent this year. The conventional response — a massive devaluation designed to restore international competitiveness — is unavailable so long as Greece remains yoked to the euro.
And it’s not easy to break free. Capital controls would be introduced overnight. The Lazarus drachma would collapse in the morning. Inflation would surge the day after. The country would, de facto or de jure, default on its debt (as would a sizeable slice of its private sector). Greek industry would face a painful funding squeeze. Payrolls would plunge, a brutal blow with the official Greek unemployment rate already at 16 percent or so — and rising.
Beyond Greece’s borders, there would be panic selling of debt issued by some or all of the other PIIGS. With a number of EU banks heavily exposed to the PIIGS, an uncontrolled Greek default, and, more dangerous still, its consequences, could conjure up sweaty memories of the financial crisis. And those affected might include the European Central Bank itself. The ECB has been an active buyer of PIIGS debt. Writing down those holdings could be awkward, especially since the eurozone’s embattled taxpayers would be left holding the tab.