The Greek Sovereign Debt Crisis
When the euro was established, some critics worried that free-spending countries in the euro zone (such as Italy and Greece) might borrow excessively, running up large public-sector deficits that they could not finance. This would then rock the value of the euro, requiring their more sober brethren, such as Germany or France, to step in and bail out the profligate nation. In 2010, this worry became a reality as a financial crisis in Greece hit the value of the euro.
The financial crisis had its roots in a decade of free spending by the Greek government, which ran up a high level of debt to finance extensive spending in the public sector. Much of the spending increase could be characterized as an attempt by the government to buy off powerful interest groups in Greek society, from teachers and farmers to public-sector employees, rewarding them with high pay and extensive benefits. To make matters worse, the government misled the international community about the level of its indebtedness. In October 2009, a new government took power and quickly announced that the 2009 public-sector deficit, which had been projected to be around 5 percent, would actually be 12.7 percent. The previous government had apparently been cooking the books.
This shattered any faith that international investors might have had in the Greek economy. Interest rates on Greek government debt quickly surged to 7.1 percent, about 4 percentage points higher than the rate on German bonds. Two of the three international rating agencies also cut their ratings on Greek bonds and warned that further downgrades were likely. The main concern now was that the Greek government might not be able to refinance some €20 billion of debt that would mature in April or May of 2010. A further concern was that the Greek government might lack the political willpower to make the large cuts in public spending necessary to bring down the deficit and restore investor confidence.
Nor was Greece alone in having large public-sector deficits. Three other euro zone countries—Spain, Portugal, and Ireland—also all had large debt loads, and interest rates on their bonds also surged as investors sold out. This raised the specter of financial contagion, with large-scale defaults among the weaker members of the euro zone. If this did occur, the EU and IMF would most certainly have to step in and rescue the troubled nations. With this possibility, once considered very remote, investors started to move money out of euros, and the value of the euro started to fall on the foreign exchange market.
Recognizing that the unthinkable might happen—and that without external help, Greece might default on its government debt, pushing the EU and the euro into a major crisis—in May 2010 the euro zone countries, led by Germany, along with the IMF agreed to lend Greece up to €110 billion. These loans were judged sufficient to cover Greece’s financing needs for three years. In exchange, the Greek government agreed to implement a series of strict austerity measures. These included tax increases, major cuts in public-sector pay, reductions in benefits enjoyed by public-sector employees (e.g., the retirement age was increased to 65 from 61 and limits were placed on pensions), and reductions in the number of public-sector enterprises from 6,000 to 2,000. However, the Greek economy contracted so fast in 2010 and 2011 that tax revenues plunged. By the end of 2011, the Greek economy was almost 29 percent smaller than it had been in 2005, while unemployment approached 20 percent. The contracting tax base limited the ability of the government to pay down debt. By early 2012, yields on 10-year Greek government debt reached 34 percent, indicating that many investors now expected Greece to default on its sovereign debt. This forced the Greek government to seek further aid from the euro zone countries and the IMF. As a condition for a fresh €130 billion bailout plan, the Greek government had to get holders of Greek government bonds to agree to the biggest sovereign debt restructuring in history, In effect, bondholders agreed to write off 53.5 percent of the debt they held. While the Greek government had not technically defaulted on its sovereign debt, to many it seemed as if the EU and IMF had orchestrated an orderly partial default. Whether that might be enough to stave off a complete default in Greece remains to be seen.
Sources: “A Very European Crisis,” The Economist, February 6, 2010, pp. 75–77; L. Thomas, “Is Debt Trashing the Euro?” The New York Times, February 7, 2010, pp. 1, 7; “Bite the Bullet,” The Economist, January 15, 2011, pp. 77–79; and “The Wait Is Over,” The Economist, March 17, 2012, pp. 83–84.