By every appearance, we are entering the final, calamitous act of the European debt crisis, a sprawling, slow-motion debacle that is about to engulf the world in financial turmoil more acute than the American meltdown of 2008. For roughly two years, European authorities have struggled to keep the debt crisis from spinning out of control, doling out bailouts to small, heavily indebted nations such as Ireland, Portugal, and Greece. “Contagion” — the notion that a sovereign default in, say, Athens, might trigger a cascade of woes elsewhere — has been and remains the watchword.
But, with Italy now propelled into the company of the desperately indebted, the Europeans have all but run out of options. Unlike Greece and Portugal, Italy, with its $2.6-trillion debt, is far, far too large to be bailed out. Italy’s political leadership — like America’s — has been absolutely unwilling to cut the expense of government, clinging like ivy to cherished government programs that cannot be sustained by any level of taxation. Over the past couple of weeks, markets have finally taken notice, driving interest rates, or “yields,” on most Italian government bonds to over seven percent. Today, for example, the Italians managed to auction off $10.6 billion worth of six-month bonds at yields of 6.504 percent. Two-year bonds, meanwhile, were selling for 7.64 percent, and 10-year bonds for 7.26 percent. By comparison, consider that six-month Italian bonds were selling for a mere 3.535 percent only last month, while two-year bonds were just above 4.1 percent in early October and at 2.3 percent in mid-March. Borrowing rates for Italy have more than tripled in a few months.
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