For the third time in 18 months the global financial system risks spinning out of control unless political leaders take immediate and radical action.
Flow data shows an abrupt withdrawal of German and Asian capital from Club Med debt markets. The EU’s refusal to offer Greece anything beyond stern words and a one-month deadline for harsher austerity – while admirable in one sense – is to misjudge how fast confidence is ebbing. Greece’s drama has already metastasised into a wider systemic crisis. The world risks a replay of the Lehman collapse if this runs unchecked, this time involving sovereign dominoes.
Barclays Capital says the net external liabilities of Greece are 87pc of GDP, or €208bn (£182bn). Spain is worse at 91pc (€950bn), and Portugal worse yet at 108pc (€177bn); Ireland is 68pc (€123bn), Italy is 23pc, (€347bn). Add East Europe’s bubble and foreign debts top €2 trillion.
The scale matches America’s sub-prime/Alt-A adventure and assorted CDOs and SIVS of the Greenspan fling. The parallels are closer than Europe cares to admit. Just as Benelux funds and German Landesbanken bought subprime debt for high yield with AAA gloss, they bought Spanish Cedulas because these too had a safe gloss – even though Spain’s property boom broke world records. They thought EMU had eliminated risk: it merely switched exchange risk into credit risk.
A fat chunk of Club Med debt has to be rolled over soon. Capital Economics said the share of state debt maturing this year is even higher in Spain (17pc) than in Greece (12pc), though Spain’s Achilles’ Heel is mortgage debt.
The risk is the EMU version of Mexico’s Tequila crisis or Asia’s crisis in 1998. This Ouzo crisis is coming to a head just as tougher bank rules cause German lenders to restrict loans, and it touches on the most neuralgic issue of our day: that governments themselves are running low. Britain, France, Japan, and the US are all vulnerable. All must retrench. The great “reflation trade” of 2009 is over.