It's official – Spain and Portugal will need to be bailed out soon. How do I know? In one of my favorite TV shows, Yes Minister, the all-knowing civil servant Sir Humphrey explains to cabinet minister Jim Hacker that you can never be certain that something will happen until the government denies it.
So check out this article in Tuesday’s Financial Times:
Spanish and Portuguese leaders, with reinforcements from Brussels, are fighting a rearguard action to convince investors that there is no need for further eurozone bail-outs after the €80bn-€90bn ($109bn-$122bn) rescue agreed for Ireland at the weekend.
“Absolutely not,” said Elena Salgado, Spanish finance minister, when asked in a radio interview on Monday whether Spain needed help from the European Union. “Spain is doing everything it has promised to do, with tangible results.”
Portugal is regarded by bond market investors and economists as next in line for a rescue after the bail-outs of Greece and Ireland. But José Sócrates, Portuguese prime minister, was adamant that there was “no connection” between the Irish rescue and Portugal’s problems. “Portugal doesn’t need anyone’s help and will solve its own problems,” he said, insisting that the country had a clear strategy to cut its yawning budget deficit.
Was Sir Humphrey exaggerating? Perhaps, but I do remember that Dublin was pretty adamant just a week or so ago that there would be no restructuring of Irish debt.
The truth is we didn’t need the denials to know what was going to happen. Everything we are seeing in Europe has a great deal of historical precedence and events are unfolding very much according to the standard script. I think it is pretty safe to make the following predictions:
- Greece will be forced to default and restructure its debt, and the restructuring will come with a significant amount of debt forgiveness. The idea that it can grow its way out of the current debt burden is a fantasy. Remember that when countries are in conditions of financial distress, they face systematic disinvestment and capital flight, and as a consequence are never able to grow at anywhere close to the necessary rates – especially since any growth they do manage to achieve generally comes from additional fiscal spending, which simply runs up debt further.
- Greece will not be the only defaulter. Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Belgium and much of Eastern Europe will also face severe financial distress and possible default. History suggests that when a country is experiencing a solvency crisis, growth comes only after debt forgiveness, and many or most of those countries will also be forced into debt forgiveness.
- Political radicalism in these countries will rise inexorably as a consequence of rising class conflict. As Keynes pointed out as far back as 1922, the process of adjusting the currency and debt will primarily be one of assigning the costs to different economic groups, and this is never an easy or conflict-free exercise. Of course the less stable a government becomes as a consequence of this adjustment, the more likely it is to prefer very short-term solutions.* This Sunday, by the way, Catalans are likely to vote in an election in which the “current Socialist-led coalition government in Spain’s northeastern region will fall, a slap in the face for Spain’s prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero,”, according to an article in Wednesday’s New York Times. There will be a lot more of this sort of thing in the next few years.
- So why not bite the bullet and just get it over with? Because the European banking system would not survive even the best-case restructuring scenario. As a consequence we are fated to witness several years of difficult economic adjustment while everyone pretends that these countries, under the right policies, can work their way through their debt burdens. What will really be happening is that European banks will aggressively rebuild their capital bases, with the unwilling help of the poor household sector, until they are sufficiently well capitalized to begin taking the write-offs. Only then will we recognize that some countries cannot repay their debts.
- As an aside the European junk-bond market might take off. With banks crippled in their lending activities, Europe’s financial markets will probably go through a process much like that which the US experienced in the 1980s. American banks at that time were unable to fulfill their traditional lending function as they struggled to clean up their LDC and energy loan portfolios, leaving the way open for the likes of Drexel Burnham to create a massive junk bond market. This process will be helped to the extent that European policymakers try to avoid paying for the adjustment by liberalizing bank-lending practices.
- Several countries, most notably Spain, will be forced to choose between giving up sovereignty to Germany, suffering extremely high rates of unemployment for several years, or giving up the euro. They will almost certainly choose the third option. There are still a lot of people who say giving up the euro is “unimaginable”, but that just shows a weak imagination. I especially remember in 2000 Domingo Cavallo dismissing the stupidity of foreign investors who imagined Argentina might be forced to suspend payments and devalue the peso – which it did in late 2001. More recently, on April 30, Cavallo warned Greece: “Don’t even think of abandoning the euro, whether temporarily or definitively, because that will provoke a financial catastrophe in Greece and various other countries in Europe.” Now there’s some useful advice, especially when you consider the huge surge in growth and the fall in unemployment Argentina experienced after it devalued.
This has been said before, but in a way this crisis is the European equivalence of the American Civil War. Once the dust finally settles Europe will either be a unified country with fiscal sovereignty firmly established in Berlin or Brussels, or it will be fragmented with little chance of reunion.
* On this topic I recommend a book I recently finished reading, Beth Simmon’s 1997 book, Who Adjusts? Domestic Sources of Foreign Economic Policy during the Interwar Years.