Since August I’ve been calling for a collapse in Europe. Obviously I’m way early here, largely due to intervention from the ECB. I also underestimated the extent to which leaders would push to hold things together.

After all, Greece had already received bailouts in excess of 150% of its GDP and still posted a GDP loss of 6.8% in 2011. It’s hard to believe they’d want to accept more austerity measures and more debt.

Moreover, political tensions between Greece and Germany had reached the point that Greeks were openly comparing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble as Nazis while the Germans referred to Greece as a “bottomless hole” into which money was being tossed.

Looking back on it, the clear reality was that Germany wanted to force Greece out of the EU but didn’t want to do it explicitly: instead they opted to offer Greece aid provided Greece accepted austerity measures so onerous that there was no chance Greece would go for it.

Well, Greece surprised many, including myself, and went for it. And so the EU experiment continues to exist today. However, before the end of this issue I will make it clear precisely why this will not be the case for much longer and why we are on the verge of a systemic collapse in Europe.

For starters, unemployment in Greece as a whole is now over 20%. For Greek youth (aged 15-24) it’s over 50%. The country is in nothing short of a Depression.

Indeed, Greece has now experienced five straight years of contraction bringing the total contraction of Greece’s GDP to 17%. To provide some historical perspective here, when Argentina collapsed in 2001 its total GDP collapse was 20% and this was accompanied by full-scale defaults as well as systemic collapse and open riots.

With new austerity measures now in place there is little doubt Greece will see a GDP contraction of 20%, if not more. I expect we’ll see other “Argentina-esque” developments in the country as well. Put mildly, the Greek issue is not resolved.

The one thing that would change my views here would be if Greece staged a full-scale default. While the political leaders and others view a total default as a nightmare (and it would be for Greek pensions, retirees, and many EU banks), it is only a total default that could possibly solve Greece’s debt problems and allow it to return to growth.

Defaults are akin to forest fires; they wipe out all the dead wood and set the stage for a new period of growth. We’ve just witnessed this in Iceland, which did the following between 2008 and 2011:

  1. Had its banks default on $85 billion in debt (the country’s GDP is just $13 billion).
  2. Jailed the bankers responsible for committing fraud during the bubble.
  3. Gave Icelandic citizens debt forgiveness equal to 13% of GD.

Today, just a few years later, Iceland is posting GDP growth of 2.9%: above that of both the EU and the developed world in general. In plain terms, the short-term pain combined with moves that reestablished trust in the financial system (holding those who broke the law accountable) created a solid foundation for Iceland’s recovery.

Now, compare this to Greece which has “kicked the can” i.e. put off a default, for two years now, dragging its economy into one of the worst Depressions of the last 20 years, while actually increasing its debt load (this latest bailout added €130 billion in debt in return for €100 billion in debt forgiveness).

Iceland staged a REAL default, and has returned to growth within 2-3 years. Greece and the Eurozone in general have done everything they can to put off a REAL default with miserable results. I’ll let the numbers talk for themselves:

Country 2011 GDP Growth 2012 GDP Growth Forecast
Iceland 2.9% 2.4%
EU (all 27 countries) 1.5% 0.0%
17 EU countries using Euro 1.4% -0.3%

* Data from EuroStat

The point I’m trying to make here is that defaults can in fact be positive in the sense that they deleverage the system and set a sound foundation for growth. The short-term pain is acute (Iceland saw its economy collapse 6.7% in 2009 when it defaulted). However, a combination of defaulting and debt forgiveness (for households) can restructure an economy enough for it to begin growing again.

However, EU leaders refuse to accept this even though the facts are staring them right in the face. The reason is due to one of my old adages: politics drives Europe, NOT economics.

And thanks to the Second Greek Bailout (not to mention the talk of a potential Third Bailout which has already sprung up), we now know that EU leaders have chosen to go “all in” on the EU experiment.

Put another way, EU leaders will continue on their current path of more bailouts until one of two things happens:

1)   The political consequences of maintaining this strategy outweigh the benefits

2)   The European bond markets force EU leaders’ hands.

I firmly believe that we will see one of these happen in the May-June window of time. We have a confluence of political, fundamental, technical, and monetary factors occurring in that time period make the possibility of a banking Crisis in Europe higher than at any other point in the last three years. Indeed, I’ve never seen such  confluence of factors like this before. And it all makes for a very ugly situation in Europe.

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Graham Summers

Chief Market Strategist