I just returned from a two-week vacation to Italy and Greece, where the topic of a potential Grexit from the European Union (EU) and what that could mean for other deeply indebted EU countries was a hot topic of conversation for tourists and locals alike.
Our tour guide, Tomasso, is from Italy, another country with shaky finances. The people of Italy are closely watching the Greek outcome, which took a turn for the worse this week, as are the good citizens of Portugal, Spain and indeed all of Europe.
Tomasso has a unique vantage point in that he travels all across Europe leading tour groups, mostly American. He has family, friends and colleagues in every nation. They are all concerned with the never-ending debt crisis that still hangs over the Continent. As the chart above clearly shows, this is not just a Greek problem. Yield spreads widened noticeably this week for government bonds issue by other fiscally challenged EU nations.
The majority of Greeks want to remain part of Europe, according to Tomasso. However, they’re rightfully angry at the harsh austerity measures imposed on Greece as part of previous bailouts.
These measures have resulted in a deflationary spiral that has been infecting all of Europe. Greece is mired in a deep recession with an alarmingly high unemployment rate of 26% and climbing.
The Greeks face a bleak economic outlook that got even murkier this week.
On Monday, the government slapped capital controls on its citizens. Tuesday at midnight, Greece’s second EU bailout in the past three years expired leaving the nation in limbo, again. Banks are closed and stock trading halted until after a July 5 referendum when the Greek people will cast votes on their future within the EU, or perhaps on their own.
In the meantime a bank “holiday” has been declared with ATM withdrawals limited to just over $60 a day — hardly enough for a decent dinner in Athens. And the Athens Stock Exchange is closed this week, after dropping 33% over the past year.
|Could we see an EU without Greece?|
Whenever a nation runs out of cash, governments resort to capital controls, although they never work. After all, the last place you’d want to invest your capital is in a market where you can’t get you money back out. So global investors avoid markets with capital controls, making the cash crunch even worse.
Over the past six months, $31 billion has been withdrawn from Greek banks. And the European Central Bank has poured nearly $100 billion in emergency lending into Greek banks, but to no avail as capital flight continues.
The banking system is insolvent without continued support from the ECB, which was also suspended this week. It doesn’t look good for the Greeks.
The probability of Greece exiting the EU has risen to about 50/50 odds today, up from just a 10% chance this time last year. Still, it’s hard to imagine Greece as no longer a part of the EU. After all, Greece is the very cradle of civilization and the cornerstone of democracy in Europe. Try to imagine the United States with New York or New England. So it’s still quite possible the Greeks will vote “yes” — in favor of continued EU membership — in next week’s referendum.
After all, nothing focuses the mind of the populace quite like a bank holiday, with no access to one’s life savings. The result from a “no” vote could be perilous indeed not just for the Greeks but for the very existence of the EU.
And if you think Greece, Italy and other European nations are inefficiently run, just spend a few hours in Passport Control and Customs at New York’s JFK airport, as I had the misfortune of experiencing firsthand this week! Bureaucracy and financial mismanagement is a problem on both sides of the Atlantic.