It’s ground hog day again. Do you remember last Spring when the EU came up with a package of loans for Greece which would solve the Greek problem? Do you remember the EU package for Ireland, to recapitalise their banks and to prevent contagion spreading? Do you recall the Portuguese package, to ensure problems did not get to Spain or Italy?
So this week the EU meets again to consider a second package of loans for Greece and to see if it is going to say and do anything for the other weaker Euro states just in case.
On previous occasions the EU has implied that each country or banking system is short of money for a short period, so loans to tide them over will resolve the difficulty. It is true they also seek to impose longer term answers to deficit and banking problems, but the immediate concern is to supply extra cash at interest rates the market will not offer. Each time they say that come another year those self same countries will be able to borrow in the normal way in the markets at sensible rates.
The borrowing countries reassure themselves that their problem is a European problem. They expect the other member states to help them out. They do not like German or EU lectures on the need for austerity.
The markets currently think other wise. Yesterday Greece had to pay 18% per annum for 10 year money, and a show stopping 38% per annum for two year money. In other words the markets think Greece will default on her debts. The markets have no wish to lend to Greece.
Ireland yesterday was offered 10 year money at 14% and 2 year money at an eye catching 21.85% per annum. Portugal faced rates of 12.7% for 10 year money and 18.6% for 2 year money. Again, markets were saying they are not keen to lend. These countries remain barred from borrowing in the normal way.
The officials charged with drawing up options to mount another Euro rescue, have not been able to come up with much. They are looking, we are told, at three options. The first is a European bail out fund which buys up distressed debt of countries in trouble, and guarantees the repayments on the remaining bonds. The aim is presumably to kick the markets into believing in these troubled countries by forcing up the price of their bonds and standing behind them.
The second is a version of the French idea. Private sector banks and other bondholders would be encouraged to re-lend the money they have already lent to the distressed sovereigns, for a longer time period at a realistic rate for the borrower. This raises the question would enough do this without some compulsion? Is the implied requirement to do it tantamount to default?
The third is to impose a tax on banks and to provide more money to distressed countries based on this new source of revenue.
All three schemes have drawbacks. None of them tackles the lack of competitiveness in the underlying economies. Distressed Euroland countries still have to get costs down sharply to compete in foreign markets more successfully, as they cannot devalue to do so. Lending them more money one way or another does not cut spending or raise tax revenues to curb their deficits. They still need to tackle the underlying problem, which is they are spending too much or raising too little in tax.
The first scheme could prove expensive, as markets are likely to want to see substantial money committed to tackle the problem of unloved Greek debt. The second scheme may require banks to be propped up by more state money in some cases, as there will be effective losses and the likely declaration of a partial or technical default. The third is wildly unpopular with banks, and unfair on the banks who have not committed themselves to too much dodgy debt. It also will require more state money to be put into the weak banks to replace the lost money from the tax. All three “solutions” in practice stumble towards a way of more subsidy being routed to the financially challenged economies. None of them solve the underlying problem of the weak banks and the large deficits. None of them stimulate more economic growth which would help.
So what should they do? They should have a frank discussion about the magnitude of the task ahead. They need to move faster and more boldly than markets expect. They can do so by uniting to control the total European deficit for Euroland and standing behind the collective debt. They can do so by ejecting weak members from the currency.
The IMF has to be able to see funding in place for the ensuing year to carry on lending to a state. The EU has to ensure this remains true for the problem countries. If they persist in seeking a third way, something which falls short of single country guarantees for all the debts or reducing the membership of the currency, they need a convincing way of allowing wayward sovereigns to rat on their debts. Then market forces will discipline the wayward states. Setting it up would prove dangerous, threatening the spread of bond and interest rate pressures and banking weakness. Not setting it up allows more countries to become wayward over borrowers. If Greece gets away with it, why not others? On this occasion friendly compromise is not kindness but cruelty.
The extraordinary thing is that most European governments seem to think it is just fine that a rich EU nation should be contemplating not paying all its bills. There are three simple options to put matters right. Greece could spend less. Greece could tax more. The other Euroland economies could give Greece the money to overspend. Not paying interest or capital back to lenders is reneging on contracts, a kind of theft, and may include short changing people, institutions and countries less well off than Greece.