Europe’s long summer holiday still has a week to run but this year’s reentry will bring with it evidence that very little progress has been made on the issues that threaten to rend the currency union and upend the global economy.
Despite waving the stress-test magic wand over its banks in late July the same problems continue to grow unchecked: a euro zone periphery that can’t compete, may not be able to pay its debts and so may bring down with them the very banks that have been pronounced healthy.
While the German economy is growing at a rate not seen since the Berlin Wall came down, things are a good bit worse in Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and especially Greece, all of which face some combination of an austerity-induced recession and debts public and private which which threaten their banking systems, local governments and Treasuries.
Investors have looked at this on the one hand and on the other a $1 trillion bailout, a pliant International Monetary Fund and the results of the stress tests and have voted with their feet: average spreads between German and peripheral country bonds are back in territory last seen in June and heading north. Ten-year Greek bonds now yield 861 basis points more than German issues, or about where they were in May when we were all debating the chances of the euro surviving in its current form.
Irish bonds too have underperformed alarmingly as austerity without debt rescheduling does what austerity without debt rescheduling does: kills growth and kills the prices of assets the debts are secured upon, leaving the country less able to service its debts and more likely to default even harder. Yes, defaults are like sneezes; some are polite and soft and some splatter everyone in the room.