May 15, 2012

Greece on Edge of Economic Collapse and Civil War—Will Contagion Spread to E.U. and U.S.?

Joel RosenbergBy Joel C. Rosenberg

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Greece is on the verge of economic collapse and civil war, according to top leaders inside Greece and the European Union. Decisions made by Greek leaders and the Greek public in the coming days and weeks could lead to catastrophic results. What’s more, experts are worried the economic and social contagion unleashed by a Greek implosion, should it happen, could spread throughout the European Union, the U.S., and around the world in our highly interdependent global economy.

Greece is staggering under a crushing amount of public debt. The politicians and the public is addicted to runaway government spending. But the Greek public is resisting the massive budget cuts and other reforms needed to avoid an implosion. It is resisting the reforms the EU leadership is requiring in order for Greece to receive new infusions of EU emergency funding and access to emergency loans. Greek leaders are, instead, seriously considering quitting the Eurozone system in order to avoid the austerity measures the EU leaders—led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel—are insisting upon.

Angela Merkel

A Look at How Greece's Troubles Might Spread

But leaving the Eurozone would likely make things far worse, cutting off or severely limiting Greek access to the capital markets and possibly leading to sky high interest rates, hyperinflation, massive business failures and soaring unemployment. If Greece leaves the Euro system, it would also severely impact the rest of Europe. Banks who have large investments in Greece fear they might never be repaid, which would threaten the health of those banks. Bank officials around the world would, in turn, jack up interest rates for other struggling European countries—including Spain, Italy and Portugal, among others—fearing they, too, might bail on the legal and financial agreements that are party of the E.U. treaty and making them higher risks of defaulting on their loans. Businesses throughout Europe could then struggle to get access to capital, potentially leading to a horrific cycle of further business failures and skyrocketing unemployment. Given that Europe is the largest trading partner with the United States, and the fact that many American banks have European exposure, the American economy could also be severely impacted.

Consider the latest developments:

  • “An outgoing Greek minister warned that the country could descend into ‘civil war’ amid the chaos of a euro exit,” reports the London Telegraph. “‘If Greece cannot meet its obligations and serve its debt the pain will be great,’ Michalis Chrysohoidis was quoted as telling a local radio station. ‘What will prevail are armed gangs with Kalashnikovs and which one has the greatest number of Kalashnikovs will count ... we will end up in civil war.’”
  • European leaders and financial markets braced for Greece exit from euro: Return to drachma nears amid political impasse in Athens and open discussion in Brussels of possible end of single currency—headline in The (UK) Guardian
  • Greece races against time to form government—headline in Agence France Presse
  • “There can be little doubt about the seriousness of the situation both for Greece, if it has to leave the eurozone, and for its partners who might lose billions in its disorderly withdrawal from the bloc,” reports Agence France Presse. “France would face a bill of 50 billion euros if Greece were forced to quit, outgoing French Finance Minister Francois Baroin warned Tuesday. ‘If Greece leaves the euro, if its economic model collapses and there’s no more banking system, that would cost us 50 billion euros net, plus the assets that the banks and insurers have on their books,’ he said. Charles Dallara, who as head of the Institute of International Finance helped negotiate the private creditor write-down, warned that the cost of failure would be too high to bear. ‘I believe that the cost to Greece, the cost to Europe and the cost to the entire global economy may still be enough to cause Greek politicians and European politicians to pause before they pull the trigger on a Greek exit.’”

If this were not all serious enough, the Greek crisis offers a warning to American policymakers who are also addicted to overspending and massive debt. The U.S. is already $15 trillion-plus in debt, with another $65 trillion in unfunded liabilities coming due. If we don’t make dramatic course corrections quickly, we may find ourselves on the financial equivalent of the Titanic, unable to avoid hitting the debt iceberg straight ahead of us before it’s too late.