Anyone believing the global economic crisis to be over should have taken a look around Europe this week. Desperate to revive his country's feeble economy, Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan promised $6 billion worth of savings in a budget aimed at taming the country's stubborn deficit. The plan is his second budget this year, and Ireland's harshest in decades. In a mini-budget announced a couple of hours earlier, Britain's Alistair Darling unveiled his government's latest plan to fix the U.K.'s broken economy, including a punitive tax on bankers' bonuses, a rise in social security contributions and a cap on public-sector workers' pay.
In other parts of Europe, things are looking even worse. Shares on the Greek stock market have fallen 9% over the past two days. The parlous state of Greece's public finances has prompted credit-rating agency Fitch to lower the country's debt rating to BBB+, the lowest in the euro zone, Europe's single-currency region. Further blows could follow: rival agencies Moody's and Standard & Poor's have threatened similar moves in recent days.
Two weeks after Dubai stunned investors by requesting a standstill on $60 billion in liabilities belonging to its main corporate arm, Greece's downgrade is yet more evidence that the economic crisis is far from over. For countries left to fill gaping holes in their public finances exposed by the meltdown, there's plenty of pain still to come.
Nowhere more so than Greece. Years of debt-fueled consumption and lax fiscal policies have left the country drowning in red ink. National debt is expected to rise to 125% of GDP in 2010, the highest in the euro zone. "If you want an example of a political élite that thought membership of the euro zone was a panacea," says Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Centre for European Reform in London, "you don't need to look further than Greece. They're in very serious trouble."
Getting out of it won't be easy. Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, which sets interest rates for the euro zone's 16 countries, urged the country on Monday, Dec. 7, to take "courageous" steps to tackle the crisis. Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou, part of the socialist government that won power in the country last October, duly pledged to do "whatever is required" to shore up the country's finances. Key to the recovery plan: slashing Greece's budget deficit next year from 12.7% more than four times the level allowed under E.U. rules to 9.1%.
While that has triggered revenue-raising measures like a crackdown on tax evasion, there's little sign of the deep spending cuts the country needs to rebalance its books. What's more, reviving growth will mean shifting from an economy founded on domestic consumption to one driven by exports. "That's going to be extremely difficult, given that [the Greeks have] allowed their cost competitiveness within the euro zone to erode massively," says Tilford. "We're still seeing big increases in Greece's wages."
Contrast that with Ireland. Since losing its edge in Europe rising labor costs helped the country's share of euro-zone exports fall one-fifth between 2001 and 2008 the Irish haven't shied from cutting their cloth in recent months. In his budget announced Dec. 9, for instance, Lenihan unleashed deeply unpopular cuts in public-sector pay that look set to trigger strike action. But when it comes to a spending squeeze of their own, says Tilford, "the Greeks are a long way from recognizing that they really have no choice."
That surely irks the E.U., which is limited in the amount of help or punishment it can impose on Greece. Allowing the country to default, or to approach to the International Monetary Fund for emergency funds, would deal a huge blow to the credibility of the 11-year-old euro zone. Whatever financial concessions it can offer, therefore, will almost certainly come with stiff conditions. Greece may have little option but to accept.