Thursday, 25 November 2010

And if Spain should fall…?

On Monday the big news of the day was the Ireland bailout. Yesterday, the follow-on story is Portugal’s general strike and the possibility of it pushing that country over the edge. But the nagging doubt in everyone’s minds, I am sure, in the European power-centres today, will be neither: it will be the much worse possibility, remote or otherwise, that Spain might follow. Yesterday Spanish Euro spreads reached a record 260 basis points, meaning that it is now very expensive indeed for Spain to borrow.

There are enormous issues at stake here: in the worst-case scenario that Spain is bailed out, there is firstly a major problem which Ireland did not have: Eurocrats are concerned that they will not have enough funds to pull it off. Spain is a much larger economy - the world’s ninth-largest - compared with tiny Ireland. The potential impact on the Euro is immense, and could threaten its very survival.

Spain under Zapatero has weakened economically for many reasons, some of which it seems fair to attribute to him, such as its failure to sort out its inflexible and two-tier labour market; and some of which it does not, such as its over-reliance economically on the construction sector. But he is very unpopular at home and, worse, is at the centre of a confidence problem on the international markets, as they don’t really believe he will do the necessary to bring the economy back into growth.

Today the governor of the Bank of Spain – perhaps somewhat unhelpfully – said that Spain needed to be “capable of convincing [the rest of the world] that we are capable of doing what we said we were going to”, which they clearly are not. And one European bank, Saxo bank, has already yesterday predicted that “Spain would be bailed out during 2011”. Oh dear.

So, Spain really could go. And, if it goes, the fallout will be huge. But the question of whether it goes or not is really a policy one at this point but a mathematical calculation on two questions. Are the funds supporting it deeper than the speculators’ pockets? And are governments prepared to support it no matter what? If the answer to either of these questions is “no”, we have a big problem.

The lesson for Britain? Look, no-one, not even the most ardent pro-European is happy with where we are on the Euro right now: perhaps, even, Gordon was right to keep us out. But the realpolitik is that we are where we are: it is not in our interests either for the Euro itself to fail, or to suffer a massive fall in value as it tries to right itself. The impact of this on British interests, so closely linked in to the fortunes of the Eurozone by trade ties, would surely be off the Richter scale, as it would for all other EU countries.

Now, there are two good reasons why people might sympathise with a “do nothing” policy:

  1. it creates what economists call “moral hazard” and will disincentivise countries to behave themselves in future, and
  2. after his widely criticised management of the economy over the past 6 years, Zapatero hardly seems to deserve a political boost to save his government.

These arguments we can hear out, although they seem to be clearly overridden by the immediate imperative of saving the Euro. What we should not do, however, is pay attention to what is probably uppermost in Cameron’s mind – the opinion on his back benches that Portugal, Spain and the Euro should be hung out to dry. Because that’s blind ideology, not practical politics pursued in the national interest.

In short, Cameron must support European governments in continuing to support the Euro – because if it fails, the results could be catastrophic for Britain, especially in its current, delicate state, with the Tories engaged in a dangerous game of cutting off nose to spite face.

Where does Cameron actually stand on the issue? Well, despite his warm words in support of his Irish colleagues, his real opinion seems to be more summed up his post-election statement: [Britain] “would not be agreeing to any agreement that drew us further into supporting the euro”. And, obviously, it doesn’t really fit well with his austerity agenda to be seen to give handouts to admittedly fiscally incontinent countries. Especially in Europe, the bane of his party.

So, let’s hope - perhaps against the odds – that he’s secretly on the phone to Angela, Nicolas and Silvio as we speak, trying to get together a big enough fund to see off the speculators. Because we are, as someone recently said, in this together.

We can act now and sort out the moral hazard later; or, alternatively, pass by on the other side of the road and end up picking up the pieces.

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