View from the US: Greece is no Lehman Brothers

(By Deutsche Welle) US markets will likely face little long-term fallout if Greece defaults on its debt. Policymakers in Washington are more concerned about the security implications of Greece exiting the eurozone. Spencer Kimball reports.

US President Barack Obama has been making phone calls. In conversations with his French and German counterparts, the president emphasized the importance of keeping Greece in the eurozone.

By most accounts, the US will not face a serious economic blow back if Greece defaults on its debt obligations this week, though the Dow Jones Industrial did drop by two percent on Monday, its biggest decline in two years.

US-based fund managers like Axel Merk actually believe that a default could serve as a healthy wake-up call to complacent investors, who’ve been shielded from risk by the intervention of central banks in financial markets over the years.

“This does not mean that if Greece defaults it’s like Lehman brothers in 2008, where there was potential threat of a meltdown of the financial system,” Merk, president of San Francisco-based Merk Investments told DW. “We’re in a very different situation from 2008 or even 2012 in the eurozone.”

US security concerns

Since 2012, the eurozone has undertaken important structural reforms and most of Greece’s debt is now owned by supranational institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Union.

As a consequence, there’s little risk that a financial collapse in Greece would spread through the eurozone and then hop over the Atlantic. The US is concerned about Greece for different reasons.

Athens has acted as a stabilizing force in the Balkans, where the nations of the former Yugoslavia were long plagued by sectarian rivalry and war. It’s also a main entry point into Europe for refugees fleeing conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. If Greece folds financially and leaves the eurozone, it could breed instability at a strategic crossroads.

There’s also concern that Greece could turn to Moscow for financial assistance, undermining Western efforts to present a united front against Russian intervention in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin has already offered financial aid in exchange for Athens supporting a Russian gas pipeline through Greece. So far, the leftist Syriza government has not accepted Russia’s overtures.

“Greece is in a dangerous neighborhood,” Douglas Rediker, who represented the US at the IMF from 2010-2012, told DW. “It was one of the great benefits to bringing Greece into the European Union and into the eurozone – to try and bring Greece closer to core Europe.”

Indirect influence

Washington has limited policy options. The US can exercise indirect influence in the Greek crisis through its decisive role at the International Monetary Fund, according to Rediker. Washington’s public position has been closely aligned with the fund, which has taken a middle road on austerity.

“The IMF has been a leading advocate for some form of debt relief on the part of the Europeans,” Rediker said. “So the IMF is both a friend and a foe to both the Greek government and to continental European governments.”

But the US is unlikely to make any public pronouncements that could complicate the Europeans’ attempt to resolve the crisis on their continent.

“They say a few nice words, otherwise they’re watching the theater,” Merk said of Washington’s role. “Clearly the US has an interest in a healthy European economy, but ultimately they cannot decide how the Greek people conduct their business.”

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