The financial crisis spreading like wildfire across the former Soviet bloc threatens to set off a second and more dangerous banking crisis in Western Europe, tipping the whole Continent into a fully-fledged economic slump.
Currency pegs are being tested to destruction on the fringes of Europe’s monetary union in a traumatic upheaval that recalls the collapse of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.
“This is the biggest currency crisis the world has ever seen,” said Neil Mellor, a strategist at Bank of New York Mellon.
Experts fear the mayhem may soon trigger a chain reaction within the eurozone itself. The risk is a surge in capital flight from Austria – the country, as it happens, that set off the global banking collapse of May 1931 when Credit-Anstalt went down – and from a string of Club Med countries that rely on foreign funding to cover huge current account deficits.
The latest data from the Bank for International Settlements shows that Western European banks hold almost all the exposure to the emerging market bubble, now busting with spectacular effect.
They account for three-quarters of the total $4.7 trillion £2.96 trillion) in cross-border bank loans to Eastern Europe, Latin America and emerging Asia extended during the global credit boom – a sum that vastly exceeds the scale of both the US sub-prime and Alt-A debacles...
Stephen Jen, currency chief at Morgan Stanley, says the emerging market crash is a vastly underestimated risk. It threatens to become “the second epicentre of the global financial crisis”, this time unfolding in Europe rather than America.
Austria’s bank exposure to emerging markets is equal to 85pc of GDP – with a heavy concentration in Hungary, Ukraine, and Serbia – all now queuing up (with Belarus) for rescue packages from the International Monetary Fund.
Exposure is 50pc of GDP for Switzerland, 25pc for Sweden, 24pc for the UK, and 23pc for Spain. The US figure is just 4pc. America is the staid old lady in this drama.
Amazingly, Spanish banks alone have lent $316bn to Latin America, almost twice the lending by all US banks combined ($172bn) to what was once the US backyard. Hence the growing doubts about the health of Spain’s financial system – already under stress from its own property crash – as Argentina spirals towards another default, and Brazil’s currency, bonds and stocks all go into freefall.
Broadly speaking, the US and Japan sat out the emerging market credit boom. The lending spree has been a European play – often using dollar balance sheets, adding another ugly twist as global “deleveraging” causes the dollar to rocket. Nowhere has this been more extreme than in the ex-Soviet bloc.
The region has borrowed $1.6 trillion in dollars, euros, and Swiss francs. A few dare-devil homeowners in Hungary and Latvia took out mortgages in Japanese yen. They have just suffered a 40pc rise in their debt since July. Nobody warned them what happens when the Japanese carry trade goes into brutal reverse, as it does when the cycle turns.
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