Teaching PIIGS to Fly

NEW YORK – Greece’s fiscal problems are, as I have argued many times, but the tip of a global iceberg. For the next installment of the recent global financial crisis will be rising sovereign risk, especially in advanced economies that run massive budget deficits and accumulate large stocks of public debt as they socialize private financial losses in order to revive economic growth.

Indeed, history suggests that severe recession and socialization of private losses often lead to an unsustainable build-up of public debt. Moreover, financial crises triggered by excessive debt and leverage in the private sector are followed after a few years by sovereign defaults and/or high inflation to wipe out the real value of public debts.

Greece is also the canary in the coal mine for the euro zone, where all the PIIGS economies (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) suffer from the twin problems of public-debt sustainability and external-debt sustainability. Euro accession and bull-market “convergence trades” pushed bond yields in these countries toward the level of German bunds, with the ensuing credit boom supporting excessive consumption growth.

Most of these economies were suffering a loss of their export markets to low-wage Asia. A decade of wage growth exceeding productivity gains led to real appreciation, loss of competitiveness, and large current-account deficits.