Worries Grow About Breadth of Debt Crisis
By GRAHAM BOWLEY
The tumult in the European monetary zone is spreading concern
among investors of a broader crisis in financial markets from
Ireland to Spain.
The worry is that the worst case, a Greek debt default, would lead
to damaging losses for European banks and spur a global panic,
replaying the events of September 2008. Then, investors fled all
but the safest government debt, unloading everything from
corporate bonds to American and emerging country stocks. Global
As European officials headed into a long weekend of critical
talks, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund said
that they were confident of a deal to secure a vital 12 billion
euros ($17 billion) in outside aid needed to stave off an imminent
The comments, reflecting belated advances in negotiations that
have been going on for weeks, were aimed at calming anxious
financial markets. But so far, the deepening concerns are stopping
short of transferring forcefully to the United States. For the
time being at least, investors seem to believe enough shock
absorbers have been built in to comfortably withstand any default
by Greece or other highly debt-ridden nation.
The interest rate on United States 10-year Treasury bonds remains
below 3 percent. In contrast, Spanish bond yields rose to an
11-year high of 5.74 percent as anxious investors fretted that it
could be next in the firing line after Greece.
“U.S. financial institutions are very cash-rich, so that means a
liquidity crisis would have to be extraordinary before it affects
them,” said Guy LeBas, the chief fixed-income strategist for
Janney Montgomery Scott.
After a 179-point sell-off on Wednesday, American markets
stabilized, with all the main United States indexes closing higher.
But the cost to investors of insuring their holdings of Greek
government debt, to make sure they recoup their money in the event
of a default, registered its single biggest one-day move.
An investor now has to pay about $2 million annually to insure $10
million of Greek debt over five years, compared with about $50,000
on the same amount of United States government debt, according to
Insurance rates on the debt of Irish and Portuguese governments,
as measured by rates in the market for credit-default swaps, also
climbed to record highs. In addition, Spain struggled to kindle
investor interest on its auction of bonds, selling 2.8 billion
euros ($4 billion), missing its top target and with average yields
creeping up again. The fear is that a Greek default could threaten
the integrity of the euro zone, require European countries to bail
out banks that lent heavily to Greece and other deeply indebted
countries, and spread panic across global markets.
The European Union’s top economic official, Olli Rehn, said he had
reached a deal with the International Monetary Fund to avoid a
Greek default through at least the fall.
But he warned politicians they must agree to new austerity
measures or the program would be worthless.
The mood in the markets was made more nervous when Michael Noonan,
finance minister of Ireland, said on Wednesday that the Irish
government was ready to impose losses on senior unsecured
bondholders of Anglo Irish Bank and the Irish Nationwide Building
Society if the European Central Bank agreed. That added to fears
that countries beyond Greece might be involved in a broader
Also, some well-regarded economists say that a Greek default is
almost inevitable. The chances of Greece defaulting are “so high
that you almost have to say there’s no way out,” Alan Greenspan,
the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said on a “Charlie
Rose” broadcast, shown on Bloomberg TV on Thursday night. He added
that as a result, some American banks may be “up against the wall.”
The financial markets are watching nervously as the Greek
government tries to push through austerity measures required to
secure more international aid.
Greece “needs to better inform the markets as well as the Greek
people that what’s being done is actually achieving results, which
will help restore confidence,” said Claude Giorno, the senior
economist for Greece at the Organization for Economic Cooperation
and Development, based in Paris.
But the United States, for the time being, appeared insulated from
the problems, and American assets remain a destination for anxious
global investors, with the dollar and Treasuries rising.
The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index rose 2.22 points, or 0.18
percent, to 1,267.64. The Dow Jones industrial average closed up
64.25 points, or 0.54 percent, to 11,961.52. The Nasdaq composite
index fell 7.76 points, or 0.29 percent, to 2,623.70.
Still, two Deutsche Bank strategists, Jim Reid and Colin Tan,
warned in a report on Thursday that this Greek crisis had echoes
of the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank in
September 2008, an event that plunged the financial system into
chaos and required the commitment of trillions of dollars in
government support to stave off another Great Depression.
“Everyone in every corner of global financial markets should be
keeping a very close eye on upcoming Greek events,” they wrote.
“The period is resembling the buildup to the Lehman collapse
where, although markets were increasingly nervous, virtually
everyone expected a last-minute buyer.”
One ugly scene that some analysts are imagining involves a default
by Greece leading to losses inflicted on banks in other European
countries that own large amounts of Greek debt. The European
Central Bank, too, is a big holder of debt, and analysts said in
the event of a default it might need to be recapitalized, another
blow to confidence.
Those losses could then cascade to the United States because the
American and European banking systems are so interlocked, lending
billions of dollars to each other every day.
American banks and insurance companies may also be liable for the
biggest share of default insurance payments to European
institutions if Greece or other countries fail. And the
trillion-dollar money market fund industry could also suffer.
About 44.3 percent of money-market fund assets are European bank
debt, according to Fitch Ratings, although they may be a little
insulated because they have sold much of their Spanish, Portuguese
and Irish debt. The funds have never held Greek bank debt, which
rarely met the funds’ credit rating standards. The markets are
keenly watching for signs that contagion is spreading through the
global financial system.
The renewed volatility in the markets has again trained a
spotlight on the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index.
The VIX, as it is known, measures the implied volatility of
options on the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. It rose to
settle above 21 on Thursday for the first time since March.
Another pressure gauge under scrutiny is the overnight interbank
lending rate. As of Monday, investors’ expectations for three
months from now of the overnight interbank lending rate showed an
increase of about 10 basis points to nearly twice its current levels.
Still, increases in those two measures so far pale in comparison
to the spikes in both during last year’s flare-up in Europe.
Contributing reporting were Eric Dash, Stephen Castle, Matthew
Saltmarsh and Liz Alderman.
NY Times June 16, 2011
Greek Turmoil Raises Fears of Instability Around Europe
By RACHEL DONADIO
ATHENS — The instability rocking Greece this week is the latest
manifestation of a troubling new phase in the global financial
crisis: political turmoil is sweeping through Europe, toppling
governments and threatening to undermine efforts to rescue the
financial system and, ultimately, the euro zone itself.
It seems likely that Prime Minister George Papandreou of Greece
will manage to hold his government together long enough to push
through the deep cuts required for his debt-ridden country to
receive its next installment of international aid. He reshuffled
his cabinet on Friday, replacing Finance Minister George
Papaconstantinou with veteran Socialist Evangelos Venizelos as
part of a broader cabinet reshuffle aimed at restoring waning
confidence among Greeks and foreign creditors.
But with a rising tide of voter anger against bank bailouts,
budget cuts and austerity measures, his popularity is plummeting.
And it is not just Mr. Papandreou who is feeling the public’s wrath.
Across Europe, people are complaining that they are unfairly
paying the price for the mistakes of their governments while they
are growing increasingly resentful of the international banks and
the preferential treatment they seem to receive. And they are
“They took everything, and we have to pay,” said Katerina
Fatourou, 30, an elementary school music teacher in Athens,
summing up a common sentiment here after a large and sometimes
violent general strike. It is not likely to be the last in Europe
In a vicious cycle, the rising political turmoil is sowing unrest
in global financial markets, raising the interest rates paid by
heavily indebted nations in Europe to ever higher levels and
threatening their solvency.
European officials are also worried that if Greece’s politicians
bow to popular anger and reject the austerity route, other
countries might follow, with potentially dire consequences for
Europe’s banks and the common currency. So concerned were European
Union officials about the potential for trouble that the bloc’s
top financial official, Olli Rehn, hinted in Brussels on Thursday
that Greece might get the new financial aid even if European
finance ministers failed to approve the loan at a meeting this
In recent months, the governments of Ireland and Portugal have
been ousted over efforts to cut budgets and benefits. Students
have rioted to protest tuition increases in Britain, and young
people who feel shut out of their own futures have held nationwide
sit-ins in Spain, where the governing Socialists are in trouble in
the polls. Right-wing political parties are gaining strength,
tapping, in part, the populist rejection of austerity plans.
This week, Mr. Papandreou became the latest politician pulled in
opposite directions by the markets, which hang on his every word,
and his country’s citizens, who have already been stung by one
round of wage and pension cuts and are resisting new spending
reductions and tax increases. But he needs those measures to
persuade the International Monetary Fund to release the next
installment of a $155 billion bailout package negotiated a year ago.
“It’s hard enough to get the electorate to support austerity at
the best of times,” said Simon Tilford, the chief economist of the
Center for European Reform in London. “They promised endless
austerity with no prospects of a return to growth, and there will
be mounting opposition to this.”
In Athens this week, the pessimism was as thick in the air as the
tear gas that the police sprayed during Wednesday’s demonstration.
“A year ago it was bad, but not like now,” said Irene Anastasiou,
22, a quiet marketing student who has been taking part in a
peaceful sit-in in Athens’s central Syntagma Square for the past
three weeks. “I am a young Greek girl. I have dreams, and they
destroyed them,” she said of the government.
In Greece, “clearly there is a sense that this society is reaching
the breaking point,” said Jens Bastian, an economist at the
Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens.
People are asking: “ ‘Where is this going to lead? Why are we
making these cuts? Why do I have to accept that I have less
income? What’s the larger purpose of this?’ ”
But those questions are not being asked only in Greece. Across
Europe, politicians have failed to sell skeptical electorates on a
variety of austerity measures.
Earlier this month, Portugal’s center-right Social Democratic
Party unseated the governing Socialists, as voters punished José
Sócrates, the Socialist caretaker prime minister, for his failure
to get public finances under control and help reverse a slump in
the economy that has pushed the unemployment rate above 12 percent.
Instead, Portugal was forced to negotiate a $110 billion
international bailout in return for pledging more austerity
measures, even as analysts forecast that its economy will contract
by 2 percent this year and next. Mr. Sócrates resigned in March
because of parliamentary opposition to his austerity plan.
In Greece, the center-right opposition is also opposed to the
terms of the bailout and is instead calling for tax breaks — a
strategy that experts said would make the deficit rise sharply and
lead to further turmoil.
More and more experts are questioning the wisdom of budget cutting
because countries like Greece and Portugal are already caught in
what they call a “debt trap.” Further cuts, they say, will only
depress the economy, reducing tax revenues and making it harder to
repay the debt.
“The E.U. and I.M.F. are insisting on a course of action that has
already failed,” Mr. Tilford said. “That is not going work but is
going to impose huge economic and social costs.”
Voters are increasingly sending politicians the same message. In
Ireland in February, the governing party, Fianna Fail, which had
run the government for 14 years, suffered its worst showing in its
more than 80-year history and was kicked out of power.
In Britain, retail sales were down 1.4. percent in May, which was
taken as a sign that consumers have no faith in the Conservative
government’s economic plan, while the opposition called for an
emergency cut in the value added tax to increase spending.
British labor unions representing about two million employees say
they plan to hold coordinated strikes on June 30, upset at
layoffs, pay freezes and changes to the pension system. They have
prompted talk of a “summer of discontent” with echoes of the
1970s, when the country was crippled by general strikes.
Back in Athens, many Greeks said the government, not the people,
should be held accountable for the country’s problems, raising an
“Could we and should we trust the people?” asked Konstantinos
Poulis, a playwright and actor who attended Wednesday’s
demonstration. “Or should it be someone who knows better? Even if
Plato were governing the country, and not Papandreou, the problem
would be the same.”
Raphael Minder contributed reporting from Madrid, Sarah Lyall from
London and Niki Kitsantonis from Athens.