Fears Greek debt crisis could trigger worldwide recession

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 June, 2011, 12:00am


Premier Wen Jiabao is now on his second trip to Europe in a year, and while China may pledge more help to the euro zone in overcoming its debt woes - as Wen did on his last visit - it probably won't help very much.

At a media briefing, Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ying said China was buying European debt and encouraging bilateral trade, adding that whether Europe could recover, and 'some European economies' could escape a worst-case scenario, was vitally important for Beijing. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said China would continue to support the euro zone's crisis-control attempts.

The International Business Daily, affiliated to the Ministry of Commerce, said in a column that China believes that even though it will take a long time to solve the Greek debt crisis, it will not become a debacle on the scale of the Lehman Brothers collapse which triggered the 2008 global financial crisis.

China has an estimated quarter of its US$3 trillion foreign reserves in euros. Since the debt crisis erupted last year, China has repeatedly said that it has confidence in the euro zone and has bought unspecified amounts of European debt, including Greek bonds.

However, given Greece's debt-to-GDP ratio of around 150 per cent, former US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan says 'the chances of Greece not defaulting are very small', and that if it does happen, it could drive the US economy into recession.

Chinese financial media commentators say it could be a worldwide recession. Over a month ago, Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV said China should stop increasing its holdings of Greek bonds because the debt crisis was worsening.

In the lead-up to Wen's European trip, none of the mainland media directly speculated about the fate of China's European bond holdings - which they know is a sensitive issue. Nor did they say whether China should continue to be so concerned about helping all euro zone countries pull themselves out of recession. They know they do not have that much influence on government decisions.

But the message is clear enough from their economic analysis: in all likelihood, the European debt crisis will not easily go away, and will perhaps be followed by similar problems in other countries.

In the National Business Daily, a column argued that Europe's succession of bailout plans was a conspiracy to cheat countries like China and Japan out of their money. No serious economic revival programme had been drawn up.

Every time the bailout money flowed in, and temporarily pumped up the euro, it gave the European institutional investors an opportunity to dump their local assets. The column said European institutional investors had shed 40 per cent of their Greek assets while some sovereign creditors (China included) had increased their holdings of Greek bonds.

A column in China Business News expressed doubt about just how serious Greece was in lifting itself out of the crisis, saying that if the bailout scenario lingered on for a few more years, it would create a mess that no one in the world would be able to clean up.

The Greek debt-to-GDP ratio was 115 per cent at the end of 2009 and higher than 140 per cent now, after a 4.5 per cent decline in gross domestic product in the past year. The ratio could edge towards an even more dangerous 160 per cent in 2013, the column warned.

Greece would, in a highly unlikely scenario, have to achieve an annual GDP growth rate of 12 per cent over the next 30 years to pay off its debts. The best possible solution was for Greece to muster up the courage to claim sovereign insolvency, the column said. European Union attempts to help were not helping anyone.

And it's not just Greece and Europe. The United States and Japan are also what Chinese commentators call 'highly debt-dependent' countries. Ten countries - seven from Europe plus the US, Japan and Australia - have issued more than 80 per cent of global debt.

According to a column in the Shenzhen Economic Daily, the game is for the rating agencies to sustain the price of the US dollar by highlighting the risks in the euro zone. But in due time, US and Japanese debt would also cause trouble for the global economy.

Perhaps for the next 10 years, the world will never be out of the shadow of a major debt crisis.