Why the debt crisis in Europe matters to American families

By | November 8, 2011

Who are “The PIIGS”

The PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) have been in the news, but the econo-geek phrases being thrown around sometimes make it difficult to know why anyone in the U.S.A should care what happens if Greece, Italy or anyone in the Eurozone goes under.

It matters – greatly.

The entire mess is centered around entitlements and debt. Greece promised a load of social safety nets (government programs intended to do for those who could not do for themselves) to their population without considering the cost or ability to pay said cost. It has come to this point because Greece now owes almost 50% more than the entire Greek economy takes in each year. In economic terms, they are at 149% of debt-to-GDP.

Greece has been in-danger of defaulting on its debt for quite some time. That would be the same as if someone in America suddenly figured out that they were spending too much money and would not be paying their car payment, rent, student loan, and credit cards – EVER. Their debtors have already given them the money. Now, those agencies have little hope of recovering the investment and will have to write-off some or all of that investment. That money.. is gone – forever. Never to be loaned again. Missing from the economy – kaput.

Even the obviously left-slanted Washington Post put together a graphic that illustrates the dire situation that the EU citizenry have allowed their leaders to get them into.

The most obvious way that this matters to housewives, moms, dads, brothers, sisters, cats, dogs and even MSNBC watchers in America is that our ratio is now 99.71% and climbing – we are eerily close to facing the exact same situation as the Greeks. The United States economy will take in an estimated $15.01 trillion dollars[1] while it owes a projected $14.97 trillion [1]. In a matter of months, we may see the point where our own government follows Greece and starts spending more than the entirety of the economy can produce.

The second major issue with a possible Greek default is U.S. financial sector and investor exposure. I know, economist-speak. Basically, American banks and investors have sunk quite a lot of money into the Euro Zone (the European countries that use the Euro as currency). If Greece defaults, a huge portion of those investments will be lost. It will make American banks weak and possibly cause some to become cash-strapped or fail.

The Bailout, the referendum and the retirement

Greece has been bailed out time-after-time by the European Central Bank (ECB) and EU member nations. The most-recent bailout package requires that Greece accept a series of austerity measures. These measures cut government programs and re-privatize government assets and services to get Greece back on the proper financial footing. Unfortunately, the Greek PM belongs to the socialist party and wouldn’t accept them. So he turned to the people.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou had last week offered to push the idea of severe cuts to government programs (similar to food stamps, medicare, medicaid, social security, etc) on to the people to decide. Without the reforms, the ECB would not give Greece the money it needs to keep the country going. The vote by the people is called a referendum. It is an Athenian or pure democratic approach to a policy consideration. The problem? The people, when given a choice to raid the treasury or lose an entitlement will .. raid the treasury – an excellent example of why pure democracy fails.

In the end, Papandreou had to rescind his call for a referendum and has now consented to leave the government upon the formation of a new coalition or “unity” government. In other words, he’s been forced to let someone else replace him and re-organize the quarreling masses in the Greek parliament.

Contagion

No, not the movie. If Greece defaults, Italy will surely fall next and Spain may not be far behind.

Just Tuesday, Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi announced that he would step down as soon as a new government could be set up in his country. In Italy, it’s a North vs. South battle that closely parallels the Northern European vs. Southern European differences. The north is heavily commercialized and productive while the south tends to be less so. Spending cuts are necessary in order for Italy to receive badly needed aid from the European Central Bank (ECB). Failing to hold a majority during the recent parliamentary vote, Berlusconi offered his resignation to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Spain has a cash problem as well. Home of the “toma la bolsa” or take the market movement that inspired the Occupy Wall Street protests, Spain has entitlement issues of their own. A population that is used to retiring early, working less and getting taken care of cares not that it is not a sustainable model.

The “So What” of it all

So why does a mother, father, kids or Grandma care if Greece defaults on its debt?

First,  the exposure to Greek debt in EU and American banks is significant. Recovery rates (the percentage of original investment an investor can expect to get back after default) would likely be less than 40%. It could be even less if loans weren’t originated with a currency contingency built in. Those banks then run the risk of becoming under-capitalized and perhaps failing.

If a large number of banks fail or look like they might, one of two things might happen. Either the central banks (ECB, Fed, IMF, etc) start propping them up with liquidity (bank bailout 2.0) or they fail and there could be a run on the banks to pull out assets – which would cause a more widespread liquidity crunch and a death spiral for the financial sector and the economy overall.

If banks are under-capitalized, loans will be impossible to get for businesses and consumers. Just like after the 2008-2009 U.S. financial mess, banks will tighten lending rules, revoke lines-of-credit and preserve capital.

Lastly – inflation – a lot of it. Eventually the central banks and governments will try to alleviate the liquidity crisis by pushing more cash into the system through bailouts, stimulus, quantitative easing or issuance of a devalued currency. Depending on the amount of “help” given, it could cause prices on everything to skyrocket.

To control the massive inflation that results, interest rates will be rapidly raised which will make borrowing much more expensive. Manufacturers that borrow will have much higher debt service costs and that will be passed on to consumers through higher prices. Prices up + weaker currency = strained family and business budgets.

That will put the economy into full reverse as families, banks and businesses tighten their belts to weather the storm.

Now imagine how things magnify if Italy then defaults, or Ireland, or Portugal or Spain or …

Sources:
[1] http://www.usdebtclock.org/

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0 thoughts on “Why the debt crisis in Europe matters to American families

  1. DJ Redman Post author

    The domino effect will no doubt be disastrous for all of the EU if Greece starts the wrecking ball rolling, as Tony’s cartoon so perfectly depicts here. I view this whole situation as the direct result of the European Socialism model proving just what happens when government co-mingles/ interferes with/takes over the private sector. Everyone ends up in poverty. This is also the exact model of government that Barack Obama is installing in America today. They say they are for the middle class and the poor, but look at who gets hurt the worst under the austerity measures.. the working class that ends up paying the huge tax increases that must be levied eventually. In 2010 Greece’s U/E rate hit 13% and now approaches..a whopping 17%.

    http://www.tradingeconomics.com/greece/unemployment-rate

    No wonder they were rioting. Will America be the next Greece?