Solving the euro crisis is a race against time. Can peripheral economies reform before the people buckle under the pressure of austerity and pull the rug from their politicians? After two months of optimism triggered by the European Central Bank’s plans to buy government bonds, investors got a touch of jitters last week.
The best current fear gauge is the Spanish 10-year government bond yield. After peaking at 7.64 percent in late July, it fell to 5.65 percent in early September. It then poked its head above 6 percent in the middle of last week because there were large demonstrations against austerity; because Mariano Rajoy’s government was dragging its heels over asking for help from the ECB; and because the prime minister of Catalonia, one of Spain’s largest and richest regions, said he would call a referendum on independence.
But by the end of the week, the yield was just below 6 percent again. That’s mainly because Rajoy came up with a new budget which contains further doses of austerity. The move prepares the way for Madrid to ask for the ECB to buy its bonds and so drive down its borrowing costs.
Rajoy didn’t want to be seen to be told to do anything by his euro partners. Hence, this elaborate dance – where he has now done what he knew he would have been told to do but can claim it was his choice. It’s hard to believe that anybody is fooled by this subterfuge; indeed, from investors’ perspective, it looks childish. But, at least the show is on the road again: the government has had the guts to press ahead with reform despite the immense unpopularity of the measures.
The question is whether Madrid and other governments in Lisbon, Dublin, Rome and Athens can keep up the reforms long enough to restore their economies to health. That, in turn, depends on three factors: how much farther they have to travel; how unruly their people are going to get; and how much help they will receive from their partners.