Why you should care about Greece's potential default

Fans show their support in the third round match between Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus and Denis Gremelmayr of Germany during day five of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park Jan. 20, 2006 in Melbourne, Australia.

Kai Ryssdal: As of the latest on the foreign exchange markets today, 8 billion euros works out to about $11 billion. That's how much the Greek government's due to get from the European Union bailout fund come the end of the month. It'll keep Athens solvent and -- the theory goes -- keep Europe from a Lehman-like crisis.

Tonight Germany's Angela Merkel and French president Nicolas Sarkozy got off a conference call with George Papandreou -- he's the prime minister of Greece -- and said Greece remains an integral part of the eurozone. U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said this morning on CNBC there's not a chance the E.U.'s going to let the Greeks default.

We asked Marketplace's Stephen Beard to follow up on our story yesterday, and explain why a tiny little country in a far off corner of southeastern Europe is so important.


Stephen Beard: This is not one but three crises intertwined. And each of them could affect the U.S.

First, there's the crisis over sovereign debt. If the Greeks default, it will be the first time for a developed country in 60 years. Gabriel Stein of Lombard Street Research says that would raise doubts about other governments' finances.

Gabriel Stein: A Greek default will prompt the possibility and likelihood of a Portuguese default, and perhaps even Spanish default and concerns about Italy.

And, he says, eventually that could raise further concerns about U.S. credit worthiness.

Stein: Greece is the canary in the gold mine if you want. It's the warning signal that even countries like the United States -- a massively rich country -- cannot simply pile on debt and expect that nobody will ever get worried about it.

So far, foreign investors have not lost their appetite for U.S. government debt. But, Stein says, that appetite could wane.

And then there's crisis number two: A Greek default could force Greece out of the eurozone and plunge the world's second most important currency into turmoil. Dominic Swords of the Henley School for Business says that could spark another crisis.

Dominic Swords: Another round of lack of confidence, reduction in investment and slow growth.

The third euro crisis poses the biggest threat to the U.S.: European banks are stuffed with eurozone government bonds. They will suffer big losses if Greece and others default. The banks will cut their lending.

Tim Leunig of the London School of Economics says the result will be recession.

Tim Leunig: Certainly in Europe, with knock-on effects in the rest of the world, which given that the U.S. is spluttering at the moment, would be problematic in the United States.

The three eurozone crises combined could hit the U.S. hard. Indeed, some observers say it could be Europe's answer to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, with this time the shockwaves traveling westward across the Atlantic.

In London, I'm Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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