The Euro Crisis has died down in 2013 after a turbulent 2012. This was not because of a lack of effort by Europe’s trouble makers; Italy ground to a halt when trying to decide a government, while Cyrpus were the latest government to need a bailout. Yet the cost of borrowing for many EU countries has been decreasing gradually regardless. This has mainly been down to the statement made last year by the head of the European Central Bank to “do whatever it takes” to save the euro, hinting at the bank finally becoming a lender of last resort to the rest of the eurozone.
But tricky times lie ahead for Europe. The Euro area declined on averaged by 1% in the first quarter of the year and unemployment has reached a record 12.1%. Protests and riots have been more common in recent years (with even Sweden now experiencing public unrest) leading to many extreme parties getting more public attention, campaigning largely on their respective countries leaving the EU.
So a big question remains; who will be the next country to request a bailout?
One likely candidate is Slovenia. With a budget deficit over 5% of their GDP, their finances are in disarray. The economy retracted by over 15% in 2008/09 and is not set to return to growth until at least 2015. The largely state owned banking sector, saddled with debt, has grown to 140% of GDP, with an estimated 20% of loans considered non-performing (extremely late repayments). The public debt is still rather low at around 60% of GDP compared to much of Europe, but the interest levels Slovenia have to pay for borrowing are rather high at near 6%, if that rises much higher in the coming months they may lose access to the international markets and require external help (i.e. a bailout). Much of Slovenia’s problems come down to the credit crunch, where easy credit fuelled a construction boom similar to that in Spain that promptly burst. Another problem was the size of the state, which kept a tight grip on the bigger markets, crowding out private competition and stopping innovation. With the government now employing austerity measures, the growth of these industries have stalled, with potential buyers now a lot harder to find in a recession hit EU.
Slovenia’s prime minister has announced a brave rejection of any bailout talks, instead talking of important reforms to the banking sector (a creation of a bad bank for the worst debts) and budget balancing austerity measures including: cuts to school subsidies, a recent 5% cut in nominal public sector wages and a new higher marginal personal income tax. Their crisis resembles more Ireland’s than Cyprus and some strong leadership is giving the country a fighting chance of avoiding an international bailout.
So if not Slovenia, who then?
Two countries that resemble Cyprus (the latest bailout victim) more closely are Malta and Luxembourg. Both are small countries with massively outsized banking sectors. Malta’s banking sector is nearly 800% of its GDP making it impossible for the government to bailout out the sector by itself if needed, while the government already has high public debt of around 70% of GDP. But Malta has relatively low unemployment and a controllable budget. Its banking sector is rather different in nature to Cyprus’s as well; instead of two big local banks full of dodgy russian money and heavily exposed to the volatile Greek economy, Malta banks are actually subsidiaries of foreign banks, with high capital ratios and profits. Luxembourg also has a large banking sector, roughly 23 times its GDP. But once again the banks are large foreign owned, differentiating it from Cyprus. The economy is also very strong; experiencing low growth in 2012 when the surrounding countries were in deep recession, holding low public debt and unemployment and possessing one of the large current account surpluses in the region. If that weren’t enough, the small country has the highest GDP per capita ratio in Europe, meaning its people enjoy a very high standard of living. Both countries are over reliant upon their financial sectors and are very exposed to shocks in the market, but neither are realistically on the brink of a bailout.
Rather more worryingly, a much bigger economy is at risk, one which has already had to accept a bailout for its banking sector. Spain withdrew around €40 billion from European Stability Mechanism to help recapitalize their banks (a EU organism set up to offer up to €100 billion in bailout funds to member states). Yet many believe this wasn’t enough and that problems remain in the troubled Spanish banking system. Spain has had to nationalise one of its largest banks Bankia, while most others have had to make large cuts to their balance sheets. If this wasn’t enough, the economy is in serious trouble. Spaniards are seeing a deep decline in their national output, likely to fall for an eighth consecutive quarter and unlikely to see growth until after 2015. Unemployment is at a record high of 27% of the population, nearly 60% for the young. The budget remains heavily unbalanced, with a deficit of 7% of GDP, leaving public debt high (though not as high as private debt). A construction crash has lost many young spaniard an entry into the work force and has caused a lot of bad debts in the banking sector. When times were bad for the EU, Spain and Italy have faced some of the highest borrowing costs. Many see Spain as the weakest member of the big club, and any serious bailout of the economy would cause massive fractures in the EU and could possibly cause a domino effect on the likes of Italy and so forth. Fortunately, the political scene is stable, with the government in power for the foreseeable future and elected on a mandate of budget balancing and reform. Such reforms and austerity are already under way, with labours cost having dropped in contrast to rises in Frances and Germanys and a 4% drop having been achieved in the budget deficit since 2009. Progress is being made, but it needs a stable environment and a strong recovery in europe wide demand for Spain to really recover and see of the need for a bailout. That is a big ask in a continent that has become synonymous with the word crisis. A bailout for Spain is largely not talked of, precisely because of the implications it could have for the future of the EU. Yet it probably remains more likely than a bailout for Luxembourg and Malta.
The reality is that many member states could require a bailout if matters turned for the worst, with Portugal another possibility after the rejection of austerity measures by the national courts. The lack of a proper system in place and the reluctance by the ECB to really put its money wheres it mouth is, means rich and stable countries like Germany will continue to fund the mistakes of poorer economies. A more united Europe could solve this, with the spreading of some of the debt between the member states an attractive idea, ending the vicious circle of national debts being inflated by bailouts and increasing the need for further bailouts. Politically it remains a tough sell, especially for Germany, but it would also show a strong and united Europe, something most national leaders would secretly like to see.
Slovenia are the strongest possibility for a next bailout, with markets lacking confidence in the economy and increasing the costs of borrowing to perhaps unstable levels. But a spreading of at least some of the debt through Euro Bonds could greatly decrease the need for this guessing game.