Greece’s Debt Crisis Explained


The question of how to save Greece, debated for more than five years, is the European Union’s recurring nightmare. If the country goes bankrupt or decides to leave the 19-nation eurozone, the Greek debt crisis could create instability in the region and reverberate around the globe.

What’s the latest?

Voters in Greece decisively rejected on Sunday the terms of a bailout deal offered by international creditors in June. The result that handed a major victory to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose government had argued that voting no would be a vote against austerity and would strengthen their hand in negotiations with their creditors. European leaders cast the vote as a referendum on whether Greece should stay in the eurozone.

What happens next?

That’s the billion-euro question. The Greek government’s victory in the referendum settled little, since the creditors’ offer was technically no longer on the table.

It remains to be seen when those talks will resume. There remains the possibility that the creditors could walk away from the talks, leaving Greece facing default, financial collapse and, in the worst case, from the European Union.The next major deadline is in late July when a 3.5 billion euro payment that Greece owes the European Central Bank comes due. If there is no international bailout program in place by that time, and little chance of such a program being in the works, the central bank at that point would probably have to finally take Greek banks off life support.

Did Greece default on its debt?

When borrowers — whether they are countries, companies or individuals — do not pay their debts on time, they are in default. For practical purposes, then, Greece — which on Tuesday failed to make a scheduled debt repayment of about 1.5 billion euros, or $1.7 billion, to the I.M.F. — has defaulted.

The I.M.F., however, does not use term default. It instead places countries that miss their payments in what it calls arrears.

Semantics aside, missing the payment might lead to a situation in which other large Greek debts are classified as being in default.

A default, even when it is not called one, is an event that can have serious repercussions for a country’s economy and relations with other nations. Defaults can upset financial markets, create uncertainty for other lenders, and generally crimp economic activity.

Greece’s G.D.P. and Unemployment Rates in Europe

First quarter 2015 average; *Britain is the three-month average through February.

Source: Eurostat

How does the crisis affect the global financial system?Europe is a union in which most real decision-making power, particularly on matters involving politically delicate things like money and migrants, rests with 28 national governments, each one beholden to its voters and taxpayers. This tension has grown only more acute since the January 1999 launch of the euro, which now binds 19 nations into a single currency zone watched over by the European Central Bank but leaves budget and tax policy in the hands of each country, an arrangement that some economists believe was doomed from the start.Since Greece’s debt crisis began in 2010, most international banks and foreign investors have sold their Greek bonds and other holdings, so they are no longer vulnerable to what happens in Greece. (Some private investors who subsequently plowed back into Greek bonds, betting on a comeback, regret that decision.)And in the meantime, the other crisis countries in the eurozone, like Portugal, Ireland and Spain, have taken steps to overhaul their economies and are much less vulnerable to market contagion than they were a few years ago.

Debt in the European Union

Gross government debt as a percentage of gross domestic product plotted through the fourth quarter of 2014.

Source: Eurostat

How likely is there to be a ‘Grexit’?

At the height of the debt crisis a few years ago, many experts worried that Greece’s problems would spill over to the rest of the world. If Greece defaulted on its debt and exited the eurozone, they argued, it might create global financial shocks bigger than the collapse of Lehman Brothers did.

Now, however, some people believe that if Greece were to leave the currency union, known as a “Grexit,” it wouldn’t be such a catastrophe. Europe has put up safeguards to limit the so-called financial contagion, in an effort to keep the problems from spreading to other countries. Greece, just a tiny part of the eurozone economy, could regain financial autonomy by leaving, these people contend — and the eurozone would actually be better off without a country that seems to constantly need its neighbors’ support.Others say that’s too simplistic a view. Despite the frustration of endless negotiations, European political leaders see a united Europe as an imperative. At the same time, they still haven’t fixed some of the biggest shortcomings of the eurozone’s structure by creating a more federal-style system of transferring money as needed among members — the way the United States does among its various states.

Exiting the euro currency union and the European Union would also involve a legal minefield that no country has yet ventured to cross. There are also no provisions for departure, voluntary or forced, from the euro currency union.

How did Greece get to this point?

Greece became the epicenter of Europe’s debt crisis after Wall Street imploded in 2008. With global financial markets still reeling, Greece announced in October 2009 that it had been understating its deficit figures for years, raising alarms about the soundness of Greek finances.

Suddenly, Greece was shut out from borrowing in the financial markets. By the spring of 2010, it was veering toward bankruptcy, which threatened to set off a new financial crisis.

To avert calamity, the so-called troika — the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission — issued the first of two international bailouts for Greece, which would eventually total more than 240 billion euros, or about $264 billion at today’s exchange rates.

The bailouts came with conditions. Lenders imposed harsh austerity terms, requiring deep budget cuts and steep tax increases. They also required Greece to overhaul its economy by streamlining the government, ending tax evasion and making Greece an easier place to do business.

If Greece has received billions in bailouts, why is there still a crisis?

The money was supposed to buy Greece time to stabilize its finances and quell market fears that the euro union itself could break up. While it has helped, Greece’s economic problems haven’t gone away. The economy has shrunk by a quarter in five years, and unemployment is above 25 percent.

The bailout money mainly goes toward paying off Greece’s international loans, rather than making its way into the economy. And the government still has a staggering debt load that it cannot begin to pay down unless a recovery takes hold.

Many economists, and many Greeks, blame the austerity measures for much of the country’s continuing problems. The leftist Syriza party rode to power this year promising to renegotiate the bailout; Mr. Tsipras said that austerity had created a “humanitarian crisis” in Greece.

But the country’s exasperated creditors, especially Germany, blame Athens for failing to conduct the economic overhauls required under its bailout agreement. They don’t want to change the rules for Greece.

As the debate rages, the only thing everyone agrees on is that Greece is yet again running out of money — and fast.(New York Times)



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