Focus shifts to Spaxit

The banking crisis could even mean that Spain beats Greece out the door.

Greece is so passé. This week, the eyes of the world have slowly begun to shift to Spain.

The real kick to switch focus was the news on Monday that the Spanish/German bond spread had topped 5 per cent - that is, the yield on Spanish bonds is now over five percentage points above the yield on German bonds. Why does this matter? Because spreads for Greek, Irish and Portugese bonds were over that level for 16 days, 24 days and 34 days respectively before they were forced into bailouts.

The root of Spain's problems are very different from Greece's, though. It's a combination of a terrible housing bust and the bind the euro traps them in. Once house prices started to plummet, the banking sector was in deep trouble, but due to the single currency, Spain can't recapitalise it the way a fully sovereign state would. So there is a very real risk of Spain going bankrupt and being forced out of the eurozone.

But this risk alone is surmountable. A combination of a sympathetic ECB (which, of course, means a sympathetic Germany), confidence in the ability of the institutions involved to find a solution, and speedy action would greatly reduce the danger of Spain leaving the currency (which has, inevitably, been dubbed a "Spaxit"). Unfortunately, none of those things actually exist.

Afraid of Spain leaving the eurozone, Spaniards are moving their euros out of their country's banks, and either hoarding notes or opening accounts in Northern Europe. Which means that the banks are in even more trouble, the bailout costs go up, and Germany is even less likely to help out. As Tyler Cowen put it:

Spain is in a self-cannibalizing downward spiral, as Greece was and is.  It will not end until there is, at the bottom, an absolute and total crash.

The Wall Street Journal's Matthew Lynn even thinks that the Spanish exit could happen without a Greek one, giving six reasons Spain will leave the euro first:

There are few good reasons for the country to stay in the euro — and little sign it has the will to endure the sacrifices the currency will demand of them.

What's more, as Matt Yglesias points out:

I don't think anyone has deluded themselves into the idea that the eurozone could survive Spain leaving. If Spain goes, it all goes.

Grexit may or may not increase the chance of Spaxit. But Spaxit almost certainly means Netherlexit, Fraxit, and even Gerxit. (Although hopefully those "words" will never again see print)

Ironically, this death spiral may now be the best hope for Spain. The knowledge that a failure to recapitalise its banks could lead to the end of the eurozone gives it much needed leverage over the ECB to gain the funds it needs. But, as the Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reported:

There is no sign so far that the ECB is ready to relent as Frankfurt and Madrid cross swords in an escalting test of will. The ECB has scotched Mr Rajoy’s tentative plans to recapitalize Bankia by drawing on ECB funds.

Perhaps put more vividly by the LSE's Luis Garicano:

It is dangerous to play chicken when you are driving a Seat and the ECB is driving a tank.

 
A rally for the Spanish People's Party. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.