Greek Omens

Bizpress was around the story; not too alarmist

The business press is starting to get used to this crisis-and-collapse thing. There was an eerie prescience in this morning’s papers, a jittery and feverish anticipation that broke wide open in today’s markets.

The mood in the markets fed the mood in the papers which transmitted it back to the markets, creating a ferocious feedback loop of information without clear beginning or end. It has familiar echoes of the subprime drumbeat that began in the spring of 2007.

To their credit, the papers walked a fine line between sounding alarms, which they clearly were hearing, and sounding alarmist, and mostly did a good job. News analyses this morning tended to be on the muted side, but the issue of the Greek financial rescue and its implications was fully vetted before markets opened.

The Wall Street Journal captured the spooked sentiment well, in a report this morning:

“There is probably nothing more frustrating for policy makers [than] to see that the Greek program is already being brushed aside by the market, which is now entirely concentrated on a full-blown contagion across euro-area countries and euro-area asset classes and spilling over to global markets,” analysts at the Royal Bank of Scotland wrote in a research note Thursday.

The FT’s Alphaville put some meat on those bones, with a report that showed the credit market “was in the midst of its most severe correction since the early months of 2009.” Want more proof that something bad is about to happen? “Spreads have now widened beyond the last three spikes in bank spreads: the collapse of Bear Stearns, Lehman failure and the latter stages of the banking crisis in March 2009.”

Right. This Greek story should have our attention. The Journal, to its credit, has gone to town to tell it, with lots of reporters, bells and whistles. When it comes to explaining how that contagion would work, it’s a good place to start.

At the FT, Martin Wolf’s Wednesday analysis of the $145 billion rescue stood out for its clarity.

For other eurozone members, the programme prevents an immediate shock to fragile financial systems: it is overtly a rescue of Greece, but covertly a bail-out of banks. But it is far from clear that it will help other members now in the firing line. Investors could well conclude that the scale of the package required for tiny Greece and the overwhelming difficulty of agreeing and ratifying it, particularly in Germany, suggest that further such packages are going to be elusive. Other eurozone members might well end up on their own. None is in as bad a condition as Greece and none has shown the same malfeasance. But several have unsustainable fiscal deficits and rapidly rising debt ratios. In this, their situation does not differ from that of the UK and US. But they lack the same policy options.

This story, in short, is not over.

That’s pretty clear, and pretty convincing.

Peter Boone and Simon Johnson offered their own threat assessment, and the headline makes clear where they stand: “It’s Not About Greece Any More.” They looked more at the fears of contagion that prompted the EU to act.

Last week the European leadership panicked – very late in the day – when they realized that the euro zone itself was at risk of a meltdown. If the euro zone proves unwilling to protect a member like Greece from default, then bond investors will run from Portugal and Spain also – if you doubt this, study carefully the interlocking debt picture published recently in the New York Times. Higher yields on government debt would have caused concerns about potential bank runs in these nations, and then spread to more nations in Europe.

When there is such a “run” it is not clear where it stops. In the hazy distance, Belgium, France, Austria and many others were potentially at risk. Even the Germans cannot afford to bail out those nations.

That Times chart is a doozy. The story that went with it set out a domino theory, with the Greek domino at the head of the row. Greece owes a lot to Portuguese banks, Portugal owes a lot to Spanish banks, etc., etc.

The numbers quickly mount. Ireland is heavily indebted to Germany and Britain. The exposure of German banks to Spanish debt totals $238 billion, according to the Bank for International Settlements, while French banks hold another $220 billion. And Italy, whose finances are perennially shaky, is owed $31 billion by Spain and owes France $511 billion, or nearly 20 percent of the French gross domestic product.

“This is not a bailout of Greece,” said Eric Fine, who manages Van Eck G-175 Strategies, a hedge fund specializing in currencies and emerging market debt. “This is a bailout of the euro system.”

That kind of dynamic sets up a host of other things for the business press to examine. The FT does a nice job of looking at the impact in central and east European markets, where currencies fell and stock markets fell further. And Business Insider has a crisp 12-part slideshow, with “everything you need to know about the rapidly approaching crisis in Spain.”

Today’s Times take was a bit wonkier, noting that officials say the plan for Greece is “sufficient,” even if investors aren’t convinced. But it includes a nice bit of Econ 101, and a whiff of the heavy politics that are at play.

The traditional way to combat unemployment in a recession is to expand the money supply. Such a step puts downward pressure on interest rates and makes capital more plentiful for businesses and consumers alike, spurring economic growth.

Mr. Congdon said recent figures indicate that even after deflationary pressures in Spain and Ireland, and the broader effect of the Greek crisis on credit-starved banks in Europe, there had been no growth in the European Central Bank’s money supply.

This is proof enough, he contends, that the central bank remains under the influence of Germany, which firmly opposes this type of debt monetization, one that has been aggressively deployed in the United States and Britain to combat the recession.

Well, it was a reasonable assessment—this morning.

The Journal quoted Howard Simons, bond strategist at Bianco Research in Chicago, who went with a colorful mammal metaphor. Oh, maybe it’s a simile. “This is like we’ve agitated a colony of prairie dogs, and everybody is looking out of their hole to see what’s going on,” said “But it’s no crisis, yet.”

Was that only this morning?

The Journal outlined scenarios for how the Greek drama might effect an American audience and, again, quite reasonably pointed to various firewalls between Greece and us.

There are a number of ways that a crisis in Greece can spread to the U.S., say economists, though most would require Greece’s problems to jump first to larger European countries, such as Spain and Italy. By itself, Greece is far too small to have much effect directly on the U.S. Its economy is about 2% the size of the U.S.’s and it takes in less than 0.1% of U.S. exports.

But Europe as whole has powerful ties to the U.S. through trade, investment and finance. U.S. banks hold more than $1 trillion of European debt, according to the Bank for International Settlements. Bruce Kasman, J.P. Morgan’s chief economist, estimates that the 16 nations of the euro zone account for about 14% of U.S exports, apart from petroleum products.

It’s easy to be a genius in hindsight, and pushing panic buttons would have done no good anyway. Indeed, it’s incredible how quickly events can overtake even the most levelheaded analysis.

The bizpages did their job this morning; they were around the right story, and they erred on the side of caution.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.