Business

Euro economists expect Greek default, BBC survey finds

European Central Bank
Image caption Most respondents expect there to be a default by at least one euro area government

Greece is likely to default on its sovereign debt, according to the majority of respondents to a BBC World Service survey of European economists.

Two-thirds of the 52 respondents forecast a default, but most said the euro would survive in its current form.

The euro crisis began when it became clear that Greece would struggle to pay its debts and had to be given rescue loans by the EU and the IMF last year.

However, Greece's finance minister rejected the suggestions of a default.

Since the Greek rescue, the Irish Republic has also had to seek help. And Portugal seems increasingly close to meeting the same fate.

The forecasters the BBC surveyed are experts on the euro area - they are surveyed every three months by the European Central Bank (ECB) - and as well placed as anyone to peer into a rather murky crystal ball and say how they think the crisis might play out.

The survey had a total of 38 replies and two messages came across very strongly.

Default expected

Most expect there will be a default by at least one government, but despite that, they think the eurozone will remain in one piece.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents - 25 out of 38 - said there would be a default.

All of them said Greece would probably fail to pay all its debts. Gabriel Stein of Lombard Street Research in London was one of them.

"Greece is bust, essentially. It will default because there is no way it can fulfil the fiscal and growth targets necessary to not default and make the debt sustainable," he said.

More than a third - 14 - said the Irish Republic would do so as well. Seven of them, including Gabriel Stein, predicted a default by Portugal.

However, Massimiliano Marcellino, head of the Economics Department at the European University Institute in Florence, said there would be no defaults.

"The countries in the worst conditions are sufficiently small to be rescued and there seems to be sufficient political support for that," he said.

"Whether this is a good idea or not is a different issue.

"It would be better to allow defaults but this is not the right moment politically and economically to discuss a default clause".

Greece, the Irish Republic and Portugal are small economies, as Mr Marcellino says.

However, there are concerns in the financial markets about a few other countries too.

Some forecasters expected defaults from large economies that would strain the EU's resources and its political commitment to the eurozone's stability: two said Italy and one of them said Spain as well.

So the dominant view among the forecasters we heard from is that Greece will default and there is a sizeable minority who expect more.

'Real question'

However, Greek finance minister George Papaconstantinou, strongly rejected the suggestion.

He told the BBC that the country's funding needs are fully covered this year and part of next year, and that Greece's structural reforms are showing results.

"At the end of the day your asking whether a country is going to default... The real question is can a country like Greece service it's debt? And the answer to that question is yes.

"It is true that people are being hit at the moment. It is true that there are businesses which are closing; unemployment is going up.

"This is the unfortunate price to pay to be able to reduce what was clearly an unsustainable deficit and bring our finances in order," he said.

Euro survival

In answer to the question "Can the euro survive intact?", 33 of the 38 said it could.

Didier Duret, chief investment officer at ABN Amro private banking, says the eurozone will not break up.

"It's simply that the costs - indirect and direct - are just too big, in a pure quantitative assessment. But if we also include all the political fallout, it would have huge historical implication to the balance of Europe and we will abandon the geopolitical safe haven that Europe represents," he said.

There were a handful, though, who dispute that view, including Heikki Taimio of the Labour Institute of Economic Research in Helsinki.

"There will be increasing divergence between the north and the south. Some countries in the north will, at some point in the not too distant future, no longer tolerate this," Mr Taimio said.

"That would mean expulsion for some countries in the south. Before this happens, we shall see all kinds of efforts to keep the members together."

Crisis response

Most - 23 of the 38 - thought the handling of the crisis by the ECB and the European Commission had been satisfactory or better.

The role of these bodies has been central.

The Commission has been co-ordinating the political response by the member states, who have given the rescues financial backing.

The ECB added another dimension by going into the financial markets and buying the debts of governments in difficulty. It has also lent funds to banks that might otherwise have gone under, further aggravating the strains in the eurozone.

The bail-outs and the ECB's intervention have their critics. But most of the experts we surveyed thought they had performed reasonably.

So this is the big picture that emerges from a group of people whose views the ECB thinks it worth testing on a regular basis: the eurozone has some more stressful times ahead, including at least one probable default, but it will survive intact.

You can hear more about the Euro Survey today on World Business Report, a new daily programme on BBC World Service and airing weekdays at 16:30 GMT.