McFeatters: Spain buys time in Europe

Spain's Economy Minister Luis de Guindos gestures during Spain's Economy Minister Luis de Guindos gestures during a news conference at the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness in Madrid (June 9, 2012). Photo Credit: AP

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There is an outside chance that the European Union's $125-billion bailout of Spanish banks -- or "line of credit," as Spain's prime minister insists on calling it -- will work. The prospect was enough to boost, if only temporarily, world financial markets.

Spain's banks, like ours, got caught in a real-estate bubble, and the EU money may give the banks space to wind down bad loans while resuming lending to the creditworthy.

Spain, although in recession and with a crippling 25 percent unemployment rate, faces a couple of grim years. But because the government debt load is manageable, the nation faces nothing like sovereign default.

What this bailout, hastily put together over the weekend, does is buy time until we learn the outcome of Sunday's Greek elections. A leftist coalition is vowing, if it wins, to tear up the austerity measures that were the price of the EU's $175 billion bailout of the Greek government.

Germany, by far the largest bankroller of the bailouts, might agree to some gentle easing of that agreement, but there will be no wholesale forgiveness. Germans already complain that they are being called upon to pay Greek taxes that the Greeks themselves refuse to pay.

There is a new term in European finance -- "ring fencing." The idea is to contain the damage of a Greek default and exit from the eurozone. The euro would be replaced by the old drachma, which, without foreign currency reserves, would be worthless outside Greece and likely not worth much inside it.

The "ring fence" is to prevent any financial contagion from spreading to Italy, Portugal and Ireland and from undercutting the Spanish bailout. If Greece exits the euro, it would be unpleasant, but economically survivable for the eurozone. But Spain matters. It is the 17-country eurozone's fourth-largest economy and the world's 13th-largest.

Much is now in the hands of Greek voters. In May 6 parliamentary elections, they showed they were tired of the austerity measures and disillusioned with the center-right political parties that negotiated them.

Even a muddled, halfhearted decision by Greek voters to stick with the austerity measures, at least for the time being, would give eurozone leaders precious time to come up with bolder measures for stabilizing Europe's economies. It's all about buying time.

Dale McFeatters is a senior writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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