Friday, October 14, 2011

What a Greek default could mean for you


The Greek government has been in a financial crisis for the past several years. There have been several attempts to restructure Greek debts and pass “austerity budgets” with draconian cuts to government spending, but the nation is edging ever closer to a default on its national debts. The situation has deteriorated to the point where Bloomberg estimates that there is a 98 percent chance that Greece will default within five years.

The fundamental problem is that Greece has spending much more than it earns in revenues. It has been making up the shortfall in revenues with loans, primarily from European banks. The problem for the European banks is similar to the U.S. banking crisis of 2008. In the U.S., the crisis was caused by the epidemic of mortgage defaults, which led to freezing of capital markets. Banks could not lend because no one knew the extent of the “toxic assets” in their holdings. They were forced to keep their cash on hand to cover possible defaults.

In Europe, the problem is several orders of magnitude larger. Instead of homeowners defaulting, the prospect is that entire nations will default on their loans. Greece is merely the first. Beyond Greece, there is also the possibility that Ireland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain will default. CNN Money notes that while Greece has over $400 billion in loans, the combined total for all five nations is $3.8 trillion.

Although most of the loans at risk are held by European banks, that does not mean that the United States is immune from the financial crisis. Nations around the world are interconnected through trade and a European financial crisis could easily spread across the Atlantic.

The panic of 2008 was set off when one company, Lehman Brothers, went bankrupt. Investors knew that the same systemic problems affected many other companies as well and reacted accordingly. Similarly, if Greece defaults, the ripples will be felt throughout the European and world economies. Dexia, a Belgian bank that failed and was nationalized in early October due to its large exposure to Greek and Italian debt, may be the Bear Stearns of the European crisis. Bear Stearns failed in March 2008 and was bought by J.P. Morgan Chase at a bargain-basement price in a deal orchestrated by the federal government.

American banks may not have many loans that are directly at risk in the crisis, but American companies do business in Europe. If the European economy crashes, it will affect the bottom line of American companies who have operations in Europe. European manufacturers would likely be caught in a credit crunch forcing a slowdown of operations and massive layoffs. Georgia companies such as Coca-Cola, Gulfstream Aerospace, Delta Air Lines, and UPS that are heavily involved in international business might be among the first American businesses to feel the effects of the crisis.

The crisis would quickly spread to the American Main Street as European investment evaporated and imports from Europe slow to a trickle. With the weak U.S. economy already verging on a double-dip recession, the crisis would likely spread quickly. Americans could soon be experiencing an economic crisis as bad or worse than the 2008 crash. Companies that depend on exports to Europe would quickly find their markets closed, leading to more layoffs and higher unemployment rates.

As in 2008, the effects would then ripple throughout the economy. As more workers lose their jobs, demand for goods and services would plummet, causing layoffs in other companies. The crisis would spread from country to country and company to company until many of the world’s economies were stricken.

In 2008, the federal government’s solution was TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program. TARP was essentially a bank bailout in which the federal government made loans and took equity stakes (purchased stock) in banks to provide an infusion of capital and liquidity. Although much criticized on both sides of the political spectrum, the original TARP did stem the crisis.

A program modeled on TARP for European banks and debtor countries might be a viable solution to the crisis. One potential problem is that Europe is 17 nations instead of one. A bailout deal must be approved by multiple national legislatures. As in the United States, bailouts of banks are not always popular in Europe and there may find significant political resistance to bailout plans.

A second problem is that the European Central Bank may not be up to the task. A Columbia University study cited in the Wall Street Journal suggests that the bank holds enough risky bonds that its own survival may be at stake. Instead of allowing the Greeks to write off as much as 50 percent of their debts, the ECB may elect to enact their own “quantitative easing” by printing money and allowing Greece to pay its debts with inflated euros.

A Greek default of some sort is almost guaranteed. Once the defaults start, no one knows for sure how fast and far it will spread, but given the weak economic situation in the United States, it is likely that European defaults would cause the American economy to slip back into recession. An old adage states that “when America sneezes, the world catches cold.” In this case, it is likely that a Greek sneeze will cause America to contract the Greek flu.

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