The markets dodged another bullet this week, as Ireland appears close to receiving a bailout from the European Union of between 45 to 90 billion Euros. Some believe misery loves company, but like the high school party that draws too large a crowd, the era of fiscal incompetence cannot last forever.
The European Union is a confederation of 27 nations who collaborated to facilitate the free movement of goods, labor and capital. In fact, 63 percent of all EU trade is done internally in what has collectively become a $14.5 trillion economy. In 1999 the EU agreed to the Maastricht Treaty, which unified the currency of eight member states into a single denomination. What was once the French Franc, the German Deutschmark and Italian Lira, amongst others, is now the Euro.
The European debt crisis initially began in Greece, who adopted the Euro in 2001, despite being in violation of a requirement that a country’s annual deficit be less than 3% of GDP before it used the Euro. Greece had a deficit well above 3 percent of GDP in 2001 and never should have been allowed to use the Euro as their currency in the first place, but nobody solves problems like Goldman Sachs.
If you’ve ever seen a mafia movie where they muscle their way into a neighborhood restaurant, buy a ton of fire insurance and then burn the joint down, consider what happened in Greece. Goldman Sachs and other large banks lent U.S. dollars to Greece in 2001 when their debt was manageable and agreed to be repaid in Euros so it could be classified as a currency trade, as opposed to debt. They disguised the debt so the EU would think Greece was below the 3 percent annual debt to GDP threshold, essentially making it possible for a debt ridden country to legally circumvent safeguards against the instability of the EU with sophisticated financing techniques.
When Greece couldn’t refinance €11 billion in May that they owed to other European nations, much like the subprime borrowers of 2008, the dominos began to fall and the entire European system was on the verge of breaking down. What was the solution to this cesspool of debt? The European Central Bank created even more debt to finance the bad decisions of broke countries and printed money to stimulate their economies.
As can be the case with a family’s dirty secret, these fiscal shortfalls didn’t vanish into money created out of thin air. While the solvency of Greece was caused by government spending, Ireland found itself imperiled by the housing crisis. It seems that the banks on the emerald island had estimated losses that amounted to 50 percent of the Irish GDP after housing prices dropped by 36 percent from their 2006 highs. With liquidity needs constraining their ability to lend money to a struggling economy, it became clear that foreign assistance was required. More concerning, this comes after the government had reportedly lent these institutions €120 billion, which impacted the status of their sovereign debt.
Ireland has a banking problem, but Portugal’s dislocated government is the driving source of great anxiety. Despite promises to implement austerity measures, the budget deficit has increased by 2.3 percent from a year ago. What futile spending cuts were implemented caused so much political backlash that new elections cannot take place until next spring due to constitutional requirements. In the meantime, nothing will be done and the markets may turn their back on Portugal as they attempt to refinance their debt.
Spain has a 20 percent unemployment rate, the fourth largest economy in the European Union, the second highest budget deficit and more than three times the public debt of Greece. The sheer size of the Spanish economy would make it too big to fail or bailout. Germany, the most responsible of EU nations, is expected to lend more good money after bad, weakening their own financial standing in the capital markets.
A bailout in Ireland, and perhaps Portugal, will be necessary to prevent further contagion in the European Union. After all, Portugal owes 33 percent of its debt to Spain, who in turn owes Germany the equivalent of 10 percent of the German economy. Italy owes France what amounts to 20 percent of the French economy, but is waiting for Spain to pay back the $31 billion it owes the Italian treasury. Not to be outdone, Spain hopes Italy can repay the $47 billion it owes the Spanish taxpayers so it can repay Britain an obligation equal to 10 percent of the British economy.
The domino theory once defined a prevailing fear that communism would spread from country to country and destabilized the global balance of power, but those were the good old days. Should investors come to believe that slow economic growth will facilitate the spread of future debt crises, impacting one nation after another, bailouts might not provide the same reprieve afforded Greece and Ireland. Paper money was good while it lasted, but even the grandest of parties must be paid for with real money.