Chris Arnade in The Atlantic:
In 2008, when the U.S. housing market collapsed, the European banks lost big. They mostly absorbed those losses and focused their attention on Europe, where they kept lending to governments—meaning buying those countries’ debt—even though that was looking like an increasingly foolish thing to do: Many of the southern countries were starting to show worrying signs.
By 2010 one of those countries—Greece—could no longer pay its bills. Over the prior decade Greece had built up massive debt, a result of too many people buying too many things, too few Greeks paying too few taxes, and too many promises made by too many corrupt politicians, all wrapped in questionable accounting. Yet despite clear problems, bankers had been eagerly lending to Greece all along.
That 2010 Greek crisis was temporarily muzzled by an international bailout, which imposed on Greece severe spending constraints. This bailout gave Greece no debt relief, instead lending them more money to help pay off their old loans, allowing the banks to walk away with few losses. It was a bailout of the banks in everything but name.
Greece has struggled immensely since then, with an economic collapse of historic proportion, the human costs of which can only be roughly understood. Greece needed another bailout in 2012, and yet again this week.
While the Greeks have suffered, the northern banks have yet to account financially, legally, or ethically, for their reckless decisions. Further, by bailing out the banks in 2010, rather than Greece, the politicians transferred any future losses from Greece to the European public. It was a bait-and-switch rife with a nationalist sentiment that has corrupted the dialogue since: Don’t look at our reckless banks; look at their reckless borrowing.