The Most Important Question in Europe: To Bailout or Not to Bailout?

Germany has to decide what to do with Spain -- and soon.


I've got some shocking news for you. Things are going badly in Europe.

The big story is Spain's borrowing costs. On Thursday yields on 10-year Spanish bonds touched the dreaded 7 percent level -- which they have continued to flirt with on Friday. What's so important about 7 percent? Two things. First, banks have to post more margin -- i.e., cash -- if yields cross that threshold when they use bonds as collateral. A downward spiral awaits. Banks might sell the bonds off because they aren't as useful -- leading to higher yields and worse margin requirements. And so on, and so on. But it doesn't even really matter. Borrowing costs of 7 percent are already ruinous for Spain. As Brad Plumer pointed out, inflation is so low in Spain that its economy would have to grow at a 4-5 percent clip to not fall into a debt trap with yields that high. But Spain isn't growing at 4 or 5 percent. Spain is in a recession.

So yes, it's fair to call the week-old bailout of Spain's banks a failout. The putative bailout has 1)  Added to Spain's public debt, 2) Made that debt riskier, and 3) Likely made it harder for Spain to pay back its debt. The euro zone can hardly take any more such successes.

But the financial apocalypse isn't here yet. Just close. Spain relies on a lot of shorter duration debt to fund itself too. The borrowing costs on those bonds are still semi-manageable -- for 2-year bonds, if not 5-year bonds. Still, Spain is far too close to insolvency for comfort. Unless the European Central Bank (ECB) pushes down yields, Spain will need another bailout. And soon.

That brings us to the most interesting euro development of the past week. German bonds started to sell off -- before rallying recently. This was ... odd. German bonds never sell off when things look bad in euroland. The opposite. There's usually a flight to safety to them. If there's one euro zone country that won't go bankrupt, it's Germany. But things are getting so bad in Spain that Germany might have to cross the financial Rubicon it's so far been unwilling to countenance: joint debt.

Spain is too big to save. But that's almost irrelevant. The bailout status quo is toxic. It hasn't solved anything for Greece, Portugal or Ireland. It won't for Spain either. Southern Europe needs to reduce its debt and reduce the interest it pays. Bailouts do the latter, but not the former. But mutual debt -- so-called "eurobonds" -- would work. There's a problem. Germany doesn't want to give southern Europe a credit card with no limit. Germany wants there to be a very specific limit. That's where the so-called "sinking fund" comes in. The idea here is that each country would dump all of its debt in excess of 60 percent of GDP into a single fund. Each country would have to pay its own portion back over 20 years, but Europe would issue debt jointly.

This isn't a fiscal union. It's not an open-ended bailout of Spain by Germany. It's a one-time bailout of Spain by Germany. It's not perfect, but it could work. And it would cost Germany a good chunk of change. That's why Germany's borrowing costs surged at the beginning of the week. Of course, Angela Merkel gave her best Herman Cain impersonation later -- Nein, nein, nein! -- which is when German borrowing costs receded.

Germany will have to make up its mind soon. Markets don't have much patience for its Hamlet act. Time to decide whether the euro will be or not be.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Business

Just In