We all exist in an interconnected global economy, meaning a major financial crisis in one country is virtually impossible to contain before it has metastasized abroad. The financial implosion that began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 was an object lesson in this aggregation of global financial fragility, as credit markets worldwide froze solid. We are now seeing a similar though far more dangerous phenomenon unfold, this time involving sovereign debt in Europe as opposed to private investment banks on Wall Street. The United States is far from immune to the long-term consequences of the Eurozone’s public debt and currency crisis.
We all recall the state of petrified panic that engulfed key political actors in major economies throughout the world as LIBOR and Ted spreads soared to the heavens in the fall of 2008. Policymakers made the fateful decision to dump the impediment of moral hazard, bailout Wall Street at taxpayers’ expense, and to transfer private toxic debt into public debt. This policy measure was further exacerbated by massive increases in deficit-driven stimulus spending to offset the economic contraction that resulted from this same credit crisis.
Ever since, policymakers have engaged in an orgy of self-congratulation, praising themselves for “saving the world” from another great depression. However, not so clever. The massive increase in public debt in virtually every advanced economy has now given rise to the next phase of the global economic crisis. We are in the midst of the initial stages of a full-blown sovereign debt crisis that potentially may inflict far more havoc on the global financial system than the turmoil that erupted less than two years ago.
A few months ago, the Eurozone politicians claimed that there existed a sovereign debt crisis only in Greece, that it was contained and would not even require an actual bailout, only the possibility of aid if it was needed, the implication being that this reassurance would be sufficient to calm the bond markets without any Eurozone rescue money actually flowing to Athens. Then, as the situation deteriorated further, we were assured that only a few tens of billions of Euros would put Greece back on its feet. When the markets weren’t fooled, the increasingly frantic Eurozone politicos offered a vastly higher level of bailout cash for Greece, translating into more than $140 billion. However, even that princely sum didn’t stop the spreads on Greek public debt from expanding, while Spain, Portugal and Italy came under increasingly harsh scrutiny from the bond vigilantes. The result is a joint Eurozone and IMF bailout package for all the so-called PIIGS nations in the Eurozone (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) totalling a cool $1 trillion.
The unprecedented scope of the Eurozone bailout package in its latest form (bereft of a plausible explanation as to how this money would actually be raised), saved the euro from further deterioration for all of 24 hours. The embattled currency has now resumed its descent into fiscal oblivion, as global markets correctly question how other European nations that are themselves faced with massive structural deficits and ballooning public debts can bailout the PIIGS. There is a growing consensus that Europe is confronting a mounting and insoluble sovereign debt crisis. In the short run, the U.S. is the beneficiary, as a flight to safety sentiment channels investors towards Treasuries as a safe haven. However, the economic consequences of the crisis in the Eurozone, combined with the public debt crisis in the UK that the new government is committed to resolving through severe budget cuts, will inevitably imperil the U.S. economy’s fragile recovery from the Great Recession, at a time when America itself is faced with structural mega-deficits far into the future.
The International Monetary Fund has now weighed in with its own expression of concern on the looming danger of a sovereign debt crisis impacting all major economies. The IMF’s recent fiscal monitor projects that by 2015, the proportion of public debt to GDP will reach 110% in the U.S., 250% in Japan and 91% in the UK, with comparable figures for most other large economies in Europe. These numbers do not even recognize unfunded contingent liabilities, which in the United States would add another 400-600% to the debt to GDP ratio.
What began in Greece and now grips the entire Eurozone economy will inevitably impact the United States. When Washington is compelled by the bond market to finally confront the full force of a sovereign debt crisis, it may prove as impotent in the face of global market forces as is the Eurozone. Furthermore, when that day arrives, unlike the Wall Street bailout of 2008, there will be no taxpayers in some far-off magical land that will be able to bailout Uncle Sam.
We are indeed living through interesting times.