Leave it to Michael Lewis to lay out the European debt crisis so that any nincompoop could understand what's happening - and then provide a detailed analysis of why Germany's financial troubles can be traced to the nation being anally obsessed. Really. Writing in Vanity Fair, Lewis says that Germans were disciplined on the inside, but looking for trouble on the outside.
Until now the European Central Bank, in Frankfurt, has been ... designed to behave with the same discipline as the German Bundesbank, but it has morphed into something very different. Since the start of the financial crisis it has bought, outright, something like $80 billion of Greek and Irish and Portuguese government bonds, and lent another $450 billion or so to various European governments and European banks, accepting virtually any collateral, including Greek government bonds. But the E.C.B. has a rule--and the Germans think the rule very important--that they cannot accept as collateral bonds classified by the U.S. ratings agencies as in default ... If Greece defaults on its debt, the E.C.B. will not only lose a pile on its holdings of Greek bonds but must return the bonds to the European banks, and the European banks must fork over $450 billion in cash. The E.C.B. itself might face insolvency, which would mean turning for funds to its solvent member governments, led by Germany. (The senior official at the Bundesbank told me they already have thought about how to deal with the request. "We have 3,400 tons of gold," he said. "We are the only country that has not sold its original allotment from the [late 1940s]. So we are covered to some extent.") The bigger problem with a Greek default is that it might well force other European countries and their banks into default. At the very least it would create panic and confusion in the market for both sovereign and bank debt, at a time when a lot of banks and at least two big European debt-ridden countries, Italy and Spain, cannot afford panic and confusion.
That's why the world's financial markets are freaking out at the possibility of a Greek default. The consequences are much greater than what would be expected from such a small nation.
The curious thing about the eruption of cheap and indiscriminate lending of money during the past decade was the different effects it had from country to country. Every developed country was subjected to more or less the same temptation, but no two countries responded in precisely the same way. The rest of Europe, in effect, used Germany's credit rating to indulge its material desires. They borrowed as cheaply as Germans could to buy stuff they couldn't afford. Given the chance to take something for nothing, the German people alone simply ignored the offer. "There was no credit boom in Germany," says Asmussen. "Real-estate prices were completely flat. There was no borrowing for consumption. Because this behavior is rather alien to Germans. Germans save whenever possible. This is deeply in German genes. Perhaps a leftover of the collective memory of the Great Depression and the hyperinflation of the 1920s." The German government was equally prudent because, he went on, "there is a consensus among the different parties about this: if you're not adhering to fiscal responsibility, you have no chance in elections, because the people are that way."