May 31, 2011 4:35 PM GMT
It has come to this. A year after rescuing Greece from default, Europe is staring into the abyss. The bailout has proved insufficient. Greece needs more money, and it can't borrow from private markets where it faces interest rates as high as 25%.
But Europe's governments are reluctant to advance more funds unless other lenders — banks, bondholders — absorb some losses by writing down their debts. This, however, would constitute a default, risking a broader banking crisis that might torpedo Europe's fragile recovery in France, Germany and elsewhere. There is no easy escape.
What's called a "debt crisis" is increasingly a political and social crisis. Looming over the financial complexities is the broader question of the ability — or willingness — of weak debtor nations to endure growing hardship to service their massive government debts.
Already, unemployment is 14.1% in Greece, 14.7% in Ireland, 11.1% in Portugal and 20.7% in Spain. What are the limits of austerity? Steep spending cuts and tax increases do curb budget deficits; but they also create deep recessions, lowering tax revenues and offsetting some of the deficit improvement.