The European debt crisis is back in the headlines, and the news is not good. Portugal's prime minister resigned after his austerity plan for the beleaguered nation were rejected by opposition parties in parliament, and Germany's leadership is waffling on funding the huge bailouts needed by debt-burdened countries such as Ireland and Greece, reflecting the deep ambiguity of German voters weary of bailing out their weaker neighbors. Despite the brave talk of a few months ago, it now seems all but inevitable that Portugal will also need a gigantic bailout of at least 70 billion euros, or $99 billion.
Ratings agencies have downgraded Portugal's debt, and investors have responded by pushing the yield on its bonds to more than 8%, roughly 4.5% higher than the yield on German bonds. Yields on Ireland's debt exceed 10%, reflecting the perceived risk of default or renegotiation.
With Europe at risk of stumbling as a result of its austerity measures and the costs of bailouts, investors need to rethink investments in eurozone economies and the euro itself.
Eurozone growth is already anemic: France managed a meager 0.3% gain in the fourth quarter of 2010, and 1.5% for all of 2010, while the U.S. economy expanded 3.1% in late 2010.
The bailouts are not small potatoes. The temporary rescue fund, known as the European Financial Stability Facility, is currently set at 250 billion euros ($353.6 billion) , and European Union officials want to expand it to 440 billion euros ($622.3 billion). The wealthier nations of Europe have already loaned 177 billion euros ($250.3 billion) to bail out Greece and Ireland, and the high yields on those nations bonds and credit default swaps -- insurance against default -- show that investors continue to see a high risk of default.
Spain Also at Risk
While Spain's economy expanded at a modest 0.9% pace last year, its debt situation remains precarious enough that ratings agency Moody's recently downgraded its bonds. The basic problems of Spain will be familiar to Americans: A property bubble drove residential real estate prices to unrealistic heights, and lenders made loans based on those sky-high valuations. Once home prices retreated, banks were left with large quantities of defaults on land and houses.
Analysts are now suggesting Spanish banks will need at least 50 billion euros in additional capital ($70.7 billion) to cover these mounting losses.
As if these losses weren't troubling enough, rising interest rates threaten to further undermine Spain's homeowners. The European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet recently said that the ECB's key interest rate could rise from 1% as early as April. Fully 97% of Spain's home loans are variable-rate: Their payments will rise when interest rates click higher.
Despite an unemployment rate around 20% and its recent debt downgrades, mainstream analysts see Spain as an unlikely candidate for a costly bailout. But Spain is burdened with the costs of bailing out its own banks, and other analysts are not so sanguine, citing a lack of information on the quality of assets held by the banks. In other words, some fear Spanish banks are overstating the value of their real estate holdings to hide the full extent of their losses.
Structural Flaws in the European Union Papered Over
While there is plenty of chatter about bailouts, austerity measures and heavy debt loads, few analysts are speaking to the potentially fatal weakness built into the European Union and its single currency, the euro, a flaw that is now painfully obvious.
While the European Union consolidated power over the shared currency and trade, it left control over trade deficits and budget deficits entirely in the hands of the member states. Lip service was paid to fiscal responsibility via caps on deficit spending, but in the real world, there were no meaningful controls limiting private or state credit expansion, or on sovereign borrowing and spending.
In effect, the importing nations within the union (Ireland, Greece, Portugal and to a degree, Spain and Italy) were given the solid credit ratings and expansive credit limits of their exporting cousins such as Germany, The Netherlands and France. To make a real-world analogy, it's as if a spendthrift younger brother was handed a no-limit credit card with a low interest rate, backed by a guarantee from a sober, cash-rich and credit-averse older sibling.
For awhile, it was highly profitable for the big European and international banks to expand lending to these eager new borrowers. This led to over-consumption by the importing nations and handsome profits for big Eurozone banks. And while the real estate and credit bubble lasted, the citizens of the bubble economies enjoyed the consumerist dream of borrow and spend today, and pay the debts tomorrow.
Tomorrow has arrived, but the foundation of the banks' assets -- the market value of housing -- has eroded to the point that both banks and homeowners face insolvency. The heightened risk of default, both by banks and the governments trying to bail them out, has caused interest rates in the debt-burdened countries to rise. Faced with rising costs of servicing their debts, and spending cuts to bring deficits under control, the citizens of the states such as Portugal are rebelling against austerity measures. On the other side, taxpayers and voters in fiscally sound member states such as Finland and Germany are rebelling about being saddled with the costs of bailing out their weaker neighbors.
This structural imbalance will not be easily addressed, but until it's fixed, the E.U. and the euro, are at risk of a great political and fiscal fracturing.