C.R.L. Narasimhan

Euro zone crisis: a global problem?

CONTAGION FEARS: Protesters gather outside Greek Parliament in Athens last week during a nationwide wave of strikes against spending cuts aimed at saving the country from bankruptcy.   | Photo Credit: Photo: AP

The Greek debt crisis is spilling over to some other European countries such as Portugal, Spain and Ireland. There is a sense of foreboding that what started as a major fiscal problem of Greece will not only morph into an European problem (bad enough, as it will be) but also become a global problem.

With the memory of the last global financial crisis still fresh in everyone's mind, the prospect of contagion sweeping across the globe is alarming. Especially because there will be an eerie similarity in the origins of the two crises. The earlier one started in the U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis. Latest developments show how a relatively small European nation's debt problems could have global ramifications.

The Greek tragedy

If the crisis does expand and envelope the whole world it will once again demonstrate how in a globalised financial environment one country's problems can quickly become the concern of every government and international institution. Moreover, Greece had, while opting for the common currency, the euro, voluntarily surrendered its monetary policy to the European Central Bank. This has proved to be a severe handicap: with its own currency, the drachma, and the scope to make interest rate and exchange rate changes, Greece could possibly have fared much better. The economic self-discipline that Greece and other EU member countries were expected to observe has made their policies inflexible to respond to a crisis.

Even some of the other advantages of having a common currency have not been an unmixed blessing. As a member state, Greece could raise large loans at cheap rates. It was this excess borrowing that caused the crisis. That its previous government fudged government accounts and incurred larger debts than what was revealed added to its woes.

The Greek crisis has been in the making for at least six months. As powerful euro zone members led by Germany dithered over a rescue package, the crisis worsened. A 110-billion euro ($147 billion) bailout package announced jointly by the IMF and the euro zone countries may not be enough and in any case may have come too late in the day to effectively contain the crisis within Greece or at the most in a few other European countries.

Snowballing effect

Signals emanating from the financial markets indicate that the crisis — now more aptly called the European sovereign debt crisis — shows signs of snowballing. Interest on two year sovereign bonds has soared to 20 per cent, a rate that indicates investors' perception of an imminent default. Rating agencies have downgraded the debts of Spain and Portugal in addition to that of Greece.

Stocks in Europe fell, followed by declines in stock markets across the world. The euro hit a 14-month low in relation to the dollar. Even emerging markets such as India that had withstood the previous crisis better than most other countries and is now in the forefront of a global recovery is feeling the heat. The Sensex, which touched 18000 a month ago, has fallen back below 17000.

FIIs turn cautious

There is only one explanation: risk averse investors are pulling out of emerging markets and seeking the sanctuary of the advanced countries. It has not yet become a stampede but the FIIs' action is reminiscent of their action last time. Indian stock indices had then declined by as much as two-thirds.

Looming default threat

Greece accounts for just 2.6 per cent of the euro-zone's GDP. Yet from its travails some messages relevant to other countries can be gleamed. Its problems are primarily due to its perilous economy.

It has a budget deficit of 13.6 per cent and debt equal to 115 per cent of GDP. At this stage it can neither loosen its fiscal policy nor spend its way out of trouble or export.

Tough austerity programmes recently imposed are hugely and expectedly unpopular. There is near unanimity that larger sums will be required to bail out Greece.

The immediate task is to forestall a default that seems imminent to many leading economists.

The danger to the global financial system and indeed to the global economy can arise out of failures to contain the Greek crisis.

The contagion can spread through a run on Greek banks. Credit has already become expensive for borrowers in other European countries perceived to be weak. Sovereign default will hit banks holding government paper and will most certainly have a cascading effect.

The Greek crisis has cast doubts on the future of the euro in a way no previous crisis has.

There is an urgent need for co-ordinating the political mechanism with the economic apparatus created while ushering in the common currency.

Until recently the euro was hailed as a model for economic co-operation.

Political leaders in Germany, France and other countries with stronger economies must show that they have the political will to sustain the unique economic experiment.

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2021 1:05:46 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/C_R_L__Narasimhan/Euro-zone-crisis-a-global-problem/article16299532.ece

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