Page last updated at 08:59 GMT, Monday, 5 April 2010 09:59 UK

Greek tragedy a lesson for us all

At the end of each month, BBC World News business presenter Jamie Robertson looks at the world's major stock markets. This month he considers the bail-out of Greece, and finds that the fall-out will spread well beyond the country's shores.

Greek protesters
Greek firemen were among a wave of public servants who took to the streets

Despite the fact that a deal was done in Brussels to rescue Greece from collapse, the Eurozone ministers appear to have found a solution that produced a few smiles and handshakes, but nothing of any substance.

Incurable optimists might have seen that the Greek stock market rose 8.1% in March despite the unconvincing bail-out, a wave of strikes (one of which blockaded the stock exchange) and Moody's downgrading five of the country's banks (NBG, Eurobank, Alpha Bank, Piraeus Bank and Emporiki Bank).

But the stocks that pushed the market up are largely international operations, with investors betting they will survive the slump in reasonable good health.

But the bond markets had a more convincing verdict.

Last Monday, when Athens tried to sell 5bn euros' of bonds, it was forced to offer an interest rate barely changed from the previous week. It's still costing Greece twice as much to borrow as it does Germany.

For a country that is meant to have the financial backing of the most powerful economies in Europe and the IMF, this is hardly encouraging.

So now the nub of the problem is that every cent of savings that is squeezed out of the hapless Greek public sector will have to be spent paying this level of interest.

Prime Minister George Papandreou pointed this out in the middle of the month and despite the bail-out, little has changed in the markets to alter what he said.

Lack of control

Most frustrating of all for the Greeks is a lack of control over its monetary policy - the inability to seek the economic solace of a currency devaluation.

When Greece replaced the drachma with the euro, it lost monetary control

A good old-fashioned financial crisis in Greece would have had us all packing our bags and booking summer holidays on Aegean beaches at knockdown prices - in drachmas - or buying cheap Greek yogurt in our supermarket at home, all doing wonders for the country's trade balance.

No such luck. The euro has put paid to that.

So with the public sector hit by pay cuts, and the corporate sector punch drunk from tax rises and the unyielding euro, the local stock market is unlikely to have any fundamental reason for advancing and rather a lot for falling.

Jim McCaughan, chief executive officer of Principal Global Investors, believes the Greek problem is far from over - and possible scenarios include rescheduling and default.

He says: "What concerns me is that after a year or two the public will get fed up with austerity and they may decide to vote in someone who simply refuses to pay."

Greece may be the most acute debt problem, but it's by no means the only one.

Basket cases

The most obvious casualty is Spain, with planned spending cuts of 50bn euros to reduce the deficit from 11.4% of GDP last year to 3% in 2013.

I am not of the 'all-is-lost' school of thought
Jim McCaughan, Principal Global Investors

Portugal has a similar task ahead of it. The UK too. Public sector squeezes the world over are going to be in Mr McCaughan's words, "a headwind to growth". And not just because of the tax rises and marvellously euphemistic "efficiency savings".

The deficits have to be financed and this is increasingly expensive - not just for the basket cases. Last month, the US issued a raft of Treasuries into the market, and found itself facing investors who are slowly and surely demanding a better return.

This was specifically for the longer maturities, as the buyers of 10 and 30-year bonds demanded reassurance that their yields are not going to get eaten away by inflation.

The yield on 10-year Treasuries is creeping towards 4%. The markets have started to realise the sheer size of this borrowing that is slowly but inexorably being built up.

And that is driving up interest rates for everyone.

Mr McCaughan believes this is going to be a preoccupation for the next 18 months to two years, or at least until the US is perceived to be in control of its deficit, which he is fairly confident will happen.

Juan Carlos
Spain's King Juan Carlos speaking at Madrid's stock exchange

"I am not of the 'All-Is-Lost' school of thought", he says. "There are a few who are; but back in the early 1990s, there was a lot of talk of the problems and size of the deficit, but the Clinton administration adopted a very systematic approach and by the end of the decade, had brought it into surplus."


"The hole now is bigger, but a policy like that could make inroads surprisingly quickly," Mr McCaughan said.

In the meantime, all of us are going to have to deal with those higher rates. Mortgages, corporate borrowings, and consumer credit are tied to the market rates, not the rates set by the central banks.

They can keep short-term base rates as low as they like, but if the market demands higher rates over longer periods, there is not that much they can do about it.

Unless highly-leveraged companies locked into low borrowing costs a year or so back to see them through to 2012 or so, the coming months could start to get expensive.

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