European debt crisis: Impact on the US

Though most Americans don't keep up with the current account deficit, which reflects the imbalanced state of American imports and exports, they probably follow the stock market. Not only do markets twitch with every bit of news from Europe, but "25 percent of all the earnings from (Standard & Poor's 500 index) companies (come) directly or indirectly from Europe," says Werner Bonadurer, a clinical professor of finance at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.

That's a big chunk of corporate profits that are shrinking.

Global currency devaluation

Sometimes countries intentionally devalue their currency to deal with financial problems. Currency devaluation makes imports expensive and exports relatively less expensive to trading partners. It may boost demand for products produced at home, which stimulates employment.

The financial crisis in 2008 pushed the U.S. to adopt monetary policies that led to a weaker dollar. The central bank in Europe is pursuing similar policies to address its debt crisis. Monetary easing makes sense when looking at one country's economy, but in the global view, it could lead to problems.

"The Bank of Japan has been doing and did exactly the same. Brazil is trying to do the same. Switzerland has done it, too. If everybody does this, if everybody pursues competitive devaluations, it becomes irrelevant," Bonadurer says.

Typically, the escalation continues, eventually leading to trade wars, protectionism and tariffs on certain goods from certain countries, none of which are conducive to global growth.

The banking system

The banking system throughout the world is closely linked. While fears of a financial contagion have been mitigated somewhat as the crisis has progressed, it's still a real concern.

"That was a worry two or three years ago, when American banks and money market funds held much larger positions of securities issued by European banks. If the European bank failed, it would affect the American banking system because the assets held by American banks were securities issued by European banks," says Gruver .

But Klein notes that U.S. banks still could be indirectly exposed to Europe. "If they don't have direct exposure to Europe, they have direct exposure to banks that have direct exposure to Europe," he says.

And, in a worst-case scenario such as a messy Greek exit from the euro currency, those connections may be a liability.

"Suppose the Greeks leave and reintroduce the drachma. People will leave Greek banks, and then banks collapse. The bank collapsing leads to other problems with other banks in other countries, and then people leave those banks. It can spread from country to country. There's not a firewall or something to prevent that," Klein says.

"Those are the nightmare scenarios keeping (American Treasury Secretary) Tim Geithner awake at night," he says.

A coin toss

Though the Greek situation is still tenuous, it's likely the region will fumble through the crisis and eventually return to slow growth.

"The effect on American consumers will be more gradual and more indirect. Because there won't be a rapid recovery in Europe, worldwide demand will remain sluggish, and therefore, it will be a drag on American employment, and that will be the main effect on the American consumer," says Gruver.

Unfortunately, forcing struggling countries to survive on starvation rations won't change the course of the crisis.

"I think the only way to get out of this mess is if you find the secret sauce of posterity … fiscal consolidation on the one hand and growth on the other hand," says Bonadurer.

That could only help everybody.


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