Must Germany bail out Portugal too?
The long-drawn saga in Athens can perhaps be deemed a case apart. Greece lied. Its budget deficit was egregious at 16pc of GDP last year on a cash basis. It wasted its EMU windfall, the final chance to bring public debt back from the brink of a compound spiral.
You cannot blame the euro for this, although EMU undoubtedly created a risk-free illusion that lured both Athens and creditors deeper into the trap – and now prevents a solution. Nor would an orderly default under IMF guidance along Uruguayan lines necessarily imperil Europe’s banks. The Bundesbank hints that letting Greece go would prove a healthier outcome for EMU in the long run, upholding discipline.
However, Portugal did not cheat (much) and did not start as an arch-debtor. It did mishandle the run-up to EMU in the 1990s, failing to offset a fall in interest rates from 16pc to 3pc with fiscal tightening. Boom-bust ensued. But that was a long time ago. Portugal has since settled down to a decade of sobriety. The reward never came.
Brussels admitted last week that Portugal’s external accounts have switched from credit in the mid-1990s to a deficit of 109pc of GDP. This has been caused by the incentive structures of EMU itself. “The more broadened access to credit induced a significant reduction in the saving rate, while consumption kept growing faster than GDP. This development led to an increase in Portuguese indebtedness,” it said.
The IMF’s January report – worth examining for its horrifying charts – said “The large fiscal and external imbalances that arose from the boom in the run-up to adoption of the euro have not been unwound, resulting in the economy becoming heavily indebted and growing banking system vulnerabilities. The longer the imbalance persists, the greater the risk the adjustment will be sudden and disruptive.” The IMF noted the “heavy reliance” of banks on foreign wholesale funding, equal to 40pc of total assets.