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European contagion

February 9, 2010

It took them a surprisingly long time to move, but as of this morning the speculators have seriously latched onto the Euro:

Traders and hedge funds have bet nearly $8bn (€5.9bn) against the euro, amassing the biggest ever short position in the single currency on fears of a eurozone debt crisis.

As the FT suggests, they’re betting on both the Greek government’s inability to avoid default – or at least devaluation and exit from the Euro – and the subsequent inability of other Euro currencies to withstand ‘contagion’: financial instability spreading from one economy to the next, with country after country pulled into the maelstrom.

Other Euro economies are exposed to Greek upsets through the substantial investments various European financial institutions now hold there. French investors are the biggest, holding $58bn worth of Greek debt at the end of 2008 (on the IMF’s most recent figures), with German investors next on $32.3bn.

UK holdings are more modest, but still very substantial, covering $14.4bn worth of loans. Around a third of Greek government debt, meanwhile, is held by Greek investors. All will take a hit from substantial fiscal turmoil in Greece. And all the big exposures are in Europe.

Major financial institutions can try to get rid of some of this risk by adjusting their portfolio of assets. The real danger is that, in doing so, they will look to dispose of debt securities held in other, smaller Euro economies with weak fiscal positions – Portugal, Ireland and Spain, in particular.

It’s these three that are now causing additional grief for the Euro. A quick glance at the combination of high public debt, and wobbly governments, tells you why the short-sellers are licking their chops. The betting is on one of the PIGS, so-called – Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain – going belly-up some time soon.

But it’s Greece that remains the biggest single risk. Revisions to the public debt figures have rattled markets, while the deep spending cuts offered in sacrifice by the newly-elected PASOK government have failed to calm jangled nerves.

If the big banks and the institutional investors pull out of Greece, they can spread financial instability elsewhere – with speculators adding to the chaos, moving colossal volumes of hot money at fantastic speed across national borders. The whole Eurozone – potentially even the Euro project itself – could suddenly appear unstable.

The decade has been generous to the Euro. A benign economic environment, floating atop a giant property-and-finance bubble, kept the show on the road. Those days are long gone.

The deciding factor here, however, is political. Either the Greek government can keep the markets reaonably sweet, holding firm to bigger and bigger promises attacks public services and wages; or the markets will be unconvinced, dragging Greece out of the Euro.

That’s where the EU steps in. The risks of contagion, and the damage to the Euro’s credibility, will no doubt concentrate European finance ministers minds on arranging a bailout. It’s the prospect of a rescue package, rather than some sudden belief in the Greek government’s firm grasp of the axe-handle, that has led to some improvement in the Euro’s position.

The planned cuts are already meeting resistance. Farmers are blockading roads, and thousands of public sector workers are expected to strike tomorrow against the wage freeze.

Serious opposition in Greece to the EU’s austerity package could open the path for resistance across Europe. But successfully fighting off the cuts will also mean building a credible, political opposition to the rule of finance.

(hat-tip to Eugenia for the figures)

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