The Spanish bailout saved the world for about 48 hours

Has the EU just flushed €100bn down the drain?

So, as we predicted, Spain got a bailout on Saturday. The mark for trouble – a five per cent spread between Spanish and German bonds – seems almost to be a self-fulfilling prophecy now. 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, but for Spain it took barely a week. 

But the bailout came, the Spanish government was given a €100bn loan from the EU to shore up the troubled banks, and when the markets opened this morning, everything was good again! The IBEX, the country's main stock market, started the day up 4.5 per cent:

Unfortunately, five hours later, the rally isn't looking quite so hot:

 

Even worse, Spanish bond yields are way up today:

The problem is that now that we're up to four eurozone bailouts, the time taken to go from "everything has been solved" to "none of the fundamental problems have been addressed in any way" is measurable in hours.

Europe remains a continent with massive imbalances between the core and periphery, and no obvious way to undo the damage that causes. Germany is so much more competitive than Spain, let alone Greece, that in a full fiscal and monetary union, there would be near permanent transfers of wealth between the two – as there are, without raising a single eyebrow, between London and Bradford, or New Jersey and New Mexico.

In addition, although this bailout is aimed at protecting the Spanish banking sector from damage already done, it does nothing for damage yet to come. The Greek problem is unchanged, with the bank jog continuing steadily (modified chart via FT alphaville):

Such a bank jog can, if it continues unchecked, force Greece out of the euro without any political intervention needed. Paul Mason explained the mechanism in detail, but the basic issue is that eventually, the Greek banks will need to appeal to the ECB for further loans against poor capital. If the ECB, at any time, refuses to allow the loan limit to be raised, then the first bank goes bust at that moment. From there, either the jog becomes a run, and the Greek banking system shuts down, or the country imposes capital controls and de facto leaves the euro.

If Greece leaves the euro, Spain's current banking problems will be looked back on with nostalgia. And, as ever in economics, the fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; belief that Spain might be going the same way as Greece is a large part of why it is going the same way as Greece.

Of course, the fact that the bailout fails to address the fundamentals of the European problem is not to suggest that it does a particularly good job dealing with the surface issues, either.

It is still not clear, for example, what proportion of the loans are coming from the European stability mechanism (ESM) and what are coming from the European financial stability fund (EFSF). This matters because (it seems that) loans from the ESM would be senior to private market loans, while loans from the EFSF would be at the same level; in other words, the ESM money must be paid off before any other loan is, which is unlikely to make the private sector particularly eager to loan to Spain.

As if to emphasise the messy nature of that problem, though, Alphaville is now running a story suggesting that, since Spain already borrows from the EFSF, its loans from the ESM take a more junior status than if it didn't.

It's also not clear whether the money handed over to Spain is actually enough to dampen its banking crisis. Reports suggest that Spanish banks are, in total, exposed to around €400bn in dodgy property loans, so the recapitalisation may not have gone anywhere near far enough.

Oh, and Ireland is getting fidgety as well. Its bailout – way back in November 2010 – happened for much the same reason as Spain's. An overextended banking sector exposed the whole country to risk which it had to ask for help for, but the government was, overall, fiscally responsible. Yet because it needed European funds before the EFSF had any powers narrower than a full-scale bailout, the money came with onerous terms which have not been matched in Spain's case. So Ireland may now be feeling hard done by, and attempt to renegotiate its own terms.

It's looking more and more likely that the EU has just flushed €100bn down the drain.

Do not pass go, do not collect €100bn. 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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage