THE GREECE CRISIS.
So what's the problem in Greece?
Years of unrestrained spending, cheap lending and failure to implement financial reforms left Greece badly exposed when the global economic downturn struck. This whisked away a curtain of partly fiddled statistics to reveal debt levels and deficits that exceeded limits set by the eurozone.Greece was living beyond its means even before it joined the euro. After it adopted the single currency, public spending soared.
Public sector wages, for example, rose 50% between 1999 and 2007 - far faster than in most other eurozone countries. The government also ran up big debts paying for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
And while money flowed out of the government's coffers, its income was hit by widespread tax evasion. So, after years of overspending, its budget deficit - the difference between spending and income - spiralled out of control.
Moreover, much of the borrowing was concealed, as successive Greek governments sought to meet the 3%-of-GDP cap on borrowing that is required of members of the euro.
When the global financial downturn hit - and Greece's hidden borrowings came to light - the country was ill-prepared to cope.
Debt levels reached the point where the country was no longer able to repay its loans, and was forced to ask for help from its European partners and the IMF in the form of massive loans.
In the short term, however, the conditions attached to these loans have compounded Greece's woes.
How big are these debts?
National debt, put at €300 billion ($413.6 billion), is bigger than the country's economy, with some estimates predicting it will reach 120 percent of gross domestic product in 2010. The country's deficit -- how much more it spends than it takes in -- is 12.7 percent.
So what happens now?
Greece's credit rating -- the assessment of its ability to repay its debts -- has been downgraded to the lowest in the eurozone, meaning it will likely be viewed as a financial black hole by foreign investors. This leaves the country struggling to pay its bills as interest rates on existing debts rise. The Greek government of Prime Minister George Papandreou, which inherited much of the financial burden when it took office late last year, has already scrapped most of its pre-election promises and must implement harsh and unpopular spending cuts. Will this hurt the rest of Europe?
Greece is already in major breach of eurozone rules on deficit management and with the financial markets betting the country will default on its debts, this reflects badly on the credibility of the euro. There are also fears that financial doubts will infect other nations at the low end of Europe's economic scale, with Portugal and the Republic of Ireland coming under scrutiny. If Europe needs to resort to rescue packages involving bodies such as the International Monetary Fund, this would further damage the euro's reputation and could lead to a substantial fall against other key currencies. If Greece does not repay its creditors, a dangerous precedent will have been set. This may make investors increasingly nervous about the likelihood of other highly-indebted nations, such as Italy, or those with weak economies, such as Spain, repaying their debts or even staying inside the euro.
If investors stop buying bonds issued by other governments, then those governments in turn will not be able to repay their creditors - a potentially disastrous vicious circle.
To combat this risk, European leaders have agreed a 700bn-euro firewall to protect the rest of the eurozone from a full-blown Greek default.
Moreover, if banks in the weaker eurozone countries that are already struggling to find enough capital are forced to write off even more loans they have made - something that becomes more likely if the eurozone economy falls deeper into recession - they will become weaker still, undermining confidence in the entire banking system.
Eurozone banks may then find it even...
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