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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired Battersea power station in 2012. Initially, it promised to build 636 affordable units. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers already having failed to develop the site, it was still enough for Wandsworth council to give planning consent. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls.

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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