Little more than a month ago, many assumed the biggest challenge facing the euro zone was how to manage the debts and dysfunctional economy of a single country, Greece. Now, policymakers and investors wish it were that simple.
Amid worries over Italy’s mountainous debt, France’s shaky AAA credit rating and the sustainability of Europe’s banking system, Greece is barely mentioned.
The crisis in the currency bloc has become existential.
But investors ignore events in the cradle of democracy at their peril. Greece remains the country considered most likely to leave the euro. Such a move would trigger another round of market panic that could drag Europe deeper into crisis and potentially upend the global economy.
In their handling of Greece, the most egregious example of the euro zone’s wider problems, Europe’s leaders had an opportunity to demonstrate the will and capability to address the currency union’s inbuilt flaws. A monetary union without a fiscal union could not succeed in the long term, economists say.
In the eyes of markets, the politicians have so far failed.
Neil Mellor, currency strategist at Bank of New York Mellon in London, compared the crisis to an infection. «You have to treat it early on. Otherwise it spreads and becomes much harder to treat. And that’s exactly what has happened.”
Whilst few saw it that way at the time, analysts now say the Greek crisis had at least one major redeeming feature — the advantage of scale. Even paying off its entire debt would have been well within the capabilities of the bloc or IMF.
Now that the markets are tearing into Italy and Spain, that option may be gone for good. It leaves economists pondering the nightmare conclusion that the currency bloc may have become simultaneously too big to fail, too big to save and too difficult to redesign quickly.
Greece, it seems, has become little more than an alarmed bystander. «In reality, it’s always been what will happen in Germany that ultimately decides whether the euro lives or dies,» said David Lea, western Europe analyst for London-based risk consultancy Control Risks. «Simply looking at Greece has always been far too simplistic.”
Italy’s funding needs over the next 12 months are around 400 billion euros (341 billion pounds), taxing the capabilities of the IMF or anyone else who tried to step in.
“These are truly enormous numbers,» says Raj Badiani, senior economist at IHS Global Insight, «it’s a completely different magnitude. Most investors have probably now priced in a Greek default, probably some time next year. That would be hard, particularly on the French banks — but with contagion you’re talking about other countries as well and it’s much tougher.”
Control Risks’ Lea believes investors, governments and others may have focused too much on Greece and too little on the wider issues. But now, he suspects, they might be making the opposite mistake.
“There is always a tendency for markets and the media to concentrate on just one place, just one story,» he said, pointing to recent periods where global markets moved almost obsessively on shifts in Greek domestic politics.
“Now, there is the risk that they might be going the other way. It’s important to look at the rest of Europe, but it is also important to remember that Greece still has the potential to produce some very nasty shocks that could drive us into a new phase of the crisis.”
It was, after all, then Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou’s totally unexpected announcement on Oct 31 that he would call a referendum on austerity measures that began the most recent market rout and heightened pressure on Italy.
For many investors, it opened the door to contemplating a potential collapse or partial disintegration of the euro zone.
For now, European leaders and financial markets seem willing to give Greece’s new expert-led government the benefit of the doubt – perhaps in part because with so much else to worry about, it is the easiest thing to do. But a collapse of that government would change the picture overnight.
“It’s very hard to predict what will happen,» said Bank of New York Mellon’s Mellor. «It’s like juggling plates. When one comes crashing down the others often end up coming with it.”