Eurozone 'pigs' are leading us all to slaughter
The financial crisis is coming to a new, potentially more deadly phase, says Jeremy Warner.
By Jeremy Warner
Published: 7:17PM GMT 05 Feb 2010
The 'pigs' of the Eurozone are causing worries for the other members Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Are we about to enter a third, and this time fatal, leg of the financial crisis? The problems of euroland which have so unsettled markets this week – and in particular those of Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain (the "pigs", as they have become known in financial circles) – are worrying enough in themselves.
But they are also a proxy for much wider concern about how national governments extract themselves from the fiscal and monetary mire they have created in fighting the downturn. It's proving messy, though, and they are running the risk of provoking an even worse crisis in the process.
Think of the three phases of the economic implosion like this.
1. The first was a fairly conventional, if extreme, banking crisis where a cyclical overexpansion of credit and lending suddenly, and violently, corrects itself in a great outpouring of risk aversion.
2. In the second phase, governments and central banks attempt to counter the economic consequences of this crunch with unprecedented levels of fiscal and monetary support. Temporarily, at least, it seemed to work.
Until now, investors have been happy to finance the resulting deficits, in part because government bonds have seemed the only safe place to put your funds, but also because central banks have, in effect, been creating money to compensate for the paucity of private-sector credit. The mechanism varies from region to region, but much of this new money has found its way into deficit financing.
3. We are now entering the third, inevitable phase of the crisis where markets question the ability of even sovereign nations to repay their debts. Unnerved by this loss of fiscal and monetary credibility, governments and central banks are being forced, much sooner than they would have wished, to start withdrawing their support.
The first tremors around these so-called "exit strategies" occurred in Dubai a few months back when the emirate, fearing for its own solvency, shocked markets by announcing that it no longer stood behind the debts of its financially stretched state-owned enterprises. In this case, Dubai's fellow and richer emirate, Abu Dhabi, eventually came to the rescue.
For the "pigs", membership of the euro excludes the easy option, which is to devalue and turn on the printing presses according to local needs. Instead, monetary policy, and increasingly fiscal policy too, are dictated by Germany and France, the core euro nations.
Little surprise, then, that one of the big bets in markets right now is that these distressed members of the euro will be forced either into default, or rather like Britain with the ERM in the early 1990s, out of the single currency altogether. Serious knock-on consequences for creditor economies would follow.
Yet to true believers in the doomsday scenario, even an outcome as extreme as this would not be the end of the crisis. Fiscal ruin is not confined to the southern European nations. The hors d'oeuvre consumed, it would be on to the main course – the default of one or more of the big, triple-A rated sovereigns. Financial and economic chaos would follow quickly in its wake.
There's a world of worry out there, fed by self-interested speculators, which is proving hard to counter. Yet things rarely work out as predicted, and though nobody should be in any doubt about the scale of the economic adjustment still to be made in Western economies, more benign outcomes are still possible. Bigger, advanced economies with their own currencies are better placed to manage their exits than the "pigs".
However, right now, both Washington and London seem gripped by the sort of political paralysis that can indeed prove lethal. We should not assume that the sudden loss of market confidence that has afflicted Greece – essentially a developing market economy that should never have been in the euro in the first place – will be confined to the "pigs". The burgeoning size of public indebtedness the world over makes all economies vulnerable.
Even so, this week's tremors should be seen as more of a warning than the beginning of a fatal endgame. The austerity of tighter fiscal and monetary conditions is coming to all of us. With or without the compliance of policy-makers, the markets will impose it. But it doesn't have to be a rout.