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A comprehensive solution for the euro crisis

It is well over a year since concerns over debt sustainability in Greece began spilling out to the rest of the Eurozone. The crisis continues. This column presents a three-part plan aiming to clean up the banks, reduce Greece’s public debt, and foster growth in the peripheral economies.

It is more than a year since the Eurozone crisis began (Baldwin 2010), but the troubles continue. Despite the repeated involvement of the EU and the IMF, markets remain unconvinced that public authorities are tackling the two main problems facing the Eurozone. These are:

  • First, the peripheral countries – Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain – face a huge challenge in having to adjust their weak economies so as to avoid a vicious circle of high private and public debts on the one hand and low growth on the other.
  • Second, the interdependence between banks and sovereigns not only within peripheral countries but also between these countries and the rest of the Eurozone.

In a recent analysis of these two problems (Darvas et al. 2011a), we propose a comprehensive strategy comprising three components:

  • Cleaning up banks;
  • Reducing the public debt in Greece, the only Eurozone country which has likely become insolvent; and
  • Fostering adjustment and growth in peripheral countries.

The problem

In many ways the four peripheral countries share common traits. Since the run-up to the euro and especially after joining the Eurozone, they have spent and lived beyond their means by accumulating private and/or public debtand running large current-account deficits. Regaining sustainability will require a combination of lower living standards and higher production levels, especially in the tradable sector. Efforts by the private and the public sectors to pay up their debts will have a negative impact on growth, and low growth will it make more difficult to reduce debt levels. These countries are also confronted with the risk of debt deflation, as restoring competitiveness in the tradable sector will require low price increases and perhaps even deflation.

Given the high level of financial interdependency within the Eurozone, the private and public debt difficulties of the peripheral countries also translate into risks for other Eurozone countries. Our estimates (Table 1) show that peripheral banks hold about €340 billion of peripheral sovereign debts and that banks in the rest of the Eurozone are exposed to peripheral countries to the tune of about €400 billion, 60% via exposure to banks and 40% via the holding of sovereign debt. By far the biggest exposure of Eurozone banks is to Spain (53% of the total exposure), through both sovereign and banking channels. The second largest exposure is to Ireland (18% of the total), mainly through the banking channel, and then Portugal (16%). Exposure to Greece is the smallest (13 %) and is almost entirely through the sovereign channel.

Table 1. Estimated exposure to periphery government debt and banking system (€ bn), end-2010

Source: Bruegel. For data sources and explanations see Darvas et al (2011).

Dealing with banks

Our estimates indicate that the exposure of Eurozone banks to peripheral countries is relatively limited and that spillover risks from difficulties in one peripheral country to the rest of the Eurozone would therefore be manageable, except if Spain had severe difficulties. What is missing, however, from our mapping of risks is the exposure of peripheral banks to potentially non-performing loans and the resulting risk for banks in the rest of the Eurozone as well as for sovereigns in both peripheral and non-peripheral countries should banks need to be further recapitalised with public funds. This crucial missing link was supposed to have been filled by the European stress test published last July. Unfortunately it was totally discredited by subsequent developments in Irish banks and markets have been concerned ever since that the current and future situation of banks in the Eurozone may be far worse than currently admitted.

The implementation of rigorous and credible stress tests is therefore an absolute priority for the Eurozone. As EU banking supervisors have squandered credibility in the previous round of stress tests, we advocate involving the IMF and possibly the Bank for International Settlement in the certification of the next round of tests. In addition, EU countries should introduce special bank resolution mechanisms in their domestic legislation as recently proposed by the European Commission and the German government.

Dealing with sovereign debt

The four peripheral countries face very different public debt burdens. The debt-to-GDP ratio of Greece is scheduled to exceed 150% in 2011, whereas Ireland, Portugal, and Spain face levels well within the range of what other Eurozone countries have achieved in the past. Sustainability does not depend only, however, upon the current situation. It also depends on assumptions about future developments. We base our assessment of sustainability on two separate benchmarks:

  • the stabilisation of the debt-to-GDP ratio in 2015;
  • and convergence towards the Maastricht criteria of 60% by 2034.

Fiscal sustainability depends on initial levels of debt, but also on assumptions about borrowing costs, GDP growth, non-standard revenues and expenditures (such as bank bail-outs or privatisation revenues) and the primary balance excluding “one-off” operations. The full details of our assumptions, as well as the sensitivity analysis we perform, can be found in Darvas et al. (2011).

Our results show that in Ireland and Greece, the adjustment needs are of a frightening magnitude. More worrying in the case of Greece is the size of the primary surplus that would need to be maintained over a period of years to achieve a return to safe levels of public debt – even under our optimistic scenario, it would need to maintain an 8.4% surplus every year for 20 years. Over the last 50 years, no OECD country (except oil-rich Norway) has sustained a primary surplus above 6% of GDP for a meaningful period of time. Our conclusion, therefore, is that Greece has become insolvent. The same does not hold for Ireland, where the necessary primary surplus is well within the range of what has been achieved historically, or for Spain and Portugal where the required adjustment is lower.

Ensuring sustainability in Greece cannot be achieved, therefore, without a significant reduction in the debt level. Yet, so far the possibility of debt restructuring has been met with strong opposition. The EU has recently moved away from complete denial of the problem, though, and several midway measures are currently under consideration. They include:

  1. a lowering of the interest rate on all official EU loans,
  2. maturity extensions on EU and IMF loans, and
  3. the repurchase by the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) of all sovereign bonds held by the ECB at market value and the retrocession of the corresponding haircut to the issuing country.

Following the same methodology used to assess solvency, we estimate the effect of these measures on long-term sustainability. We also consider the effects of a drop of 100 basis points in market yields, which can be broadly interpreted as an increase in market confidence.

Our results, presented in Table 2, show that even if all these measures were to be applied, they would not be sufficient to return Greece to solvency. Under our optimistic scenario, bringing public debt down to 60% of GDP in 2034 would require the country to maintain a 6% primary surplus every year for 20 years.

Assuming that the three measures outlined above all apply, that official lending is excluded from the haircut, and that renewed faith in the sustainability of the country would lead to increased market confidence and thus lower borrowing costs, we find that the haircut on marketable public debt necessary to return Greece to solvency would be in the range of 30%.

Table 2. Assessment of alternative policies


Source: Bruegel simulations

The main reason for opposing the restructuring of Greece’s debt seems is that it could create contagion effects and throughout the Eurozone. Our estimate of debt holdings (Table 1) shows, however, that the spillover effect from a sustainability-restoring haircut in Greece on banks in the rest of the Eurozone would be in the range of €35 billion, which is clearly manageable. As a comparison, the IMF puts total losses from the sub-prime crisis for Eurozone banks at around €500 billion (IMF, 2010).

Fostering growth

Peripheral countries need to continue implementing reforms aimed at increasing employment and productivity. Yet, even if they are successful, such reforms will take time to produce their effects. In the meantime, growth will remain subdued and even if reduced, debt will stay at high levels. Efforts by the private and the public sectors to pay up their debts will have a negative impact on growth, and low growth will it make more difficult to reduce debt levels.

In order to break up this vicious circle, peripheral countries need to first stabilise and then reduce their debt levels while accelerating the pace of economic reform. But the EU can and should play an important role in helping these countries find the narrow policy path to extricate themselves from their debt problems by contributing to foster reforms and growth in these countries.

We strongly advocate a temporary refocusing of EU structural funds earmarked for spending in the peripheral countries, so that money can be mobilised to support a new growth strategy. As argued in Marzinotto (2011), this requires front-loading EU structural spending (without changing its distribution by country), so that it can contribute to fostering reform and growth during the most acute phase of the adjustment. This also requires a joined, coordinated approach, including with the EU-IMF programme, instead of the current silo approach that hinders coherence and effectiveness.


Baldwin, Richard (2010), “A re-cap of Vox columns on the Eurozone crisis”, VoxEU.org, 13 May.

Darvas, Zsolt, Jean Pisani-Ferry, and André Sapir (2011a), “A Comprehensive Approach to the Euro-Area Debt Crisis”, Bruegel Policy Brief 2011/02.

Darvas, Zsolt, Christophe Gouardo, Jean Pisani-Ferry, and André Sapir (2011b), “A Comprehensive Approach to the Euro-Area Debt Crisis: Background Estimates”, Bruegel Working Paper 2011/5, February.

IMF (2010), Global Financial Stability Report, International Monetary Fund, October.

Marzinotto, Benedicta (2011), “A European Fund for Economic Revival in Crisis Countries”, Bruegel Policy Contribution, February.

Posen, Adam and Nicolas Véron (2009), “A solution to Europe’s banking problem”, Bruegel Policy Brief 2009/03.

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