Colin Barr

Following the money in banking, economics, and Washington

Walking the Greek tightrope

June 23, 2011: 4:50 PM ET

Greece and its patrons took a half-step forward Thursday, leaving just a few hundred billion more to go.

Greek leaders reached an agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund on another round of tax hikes and spending cuts, Reuters reported.

A soaring moment

The deal was taken as a positive on a day otherwise dominated by the sinking prospects for U.S. growth and policymakers' latest act of desperation, the release of oil reserves at a time when there is no supply shock. Stocks trimmed their losses after earlier falling as much as 2%.

But it is easy to see that the agreement reached Thursday is just the first of many hoops that the save-the-euro crowd must jump through.

Greece, after all, has a budget deficit, a contracting economy and more than 300 billion euros ($425 billion) in debt. This is not the ideal combination.

That's why it is far from clear that the austere medicine being advocated by the IMF and the EU will work. No surprise, then, that winning approval of the next round of cuts in the Greek parliament looks less than certain -- particularly after an opposition party leader pointed out that slashing spending in an economy already in deep recession creates "obvious problems."

This means that next week's vote on adopting further contractionary policies promises to be another nail-biter. And after that there is the question of squeezing further funds out of European and IMF coffers at a time when further bailouts aren't exactly big winners at the polls.

Beyond that lurks the danger of frazzled debt markets and nervous depositors. The European Central Bank has been funding the banking systems of the weak European countries, but a big bank run in Greece or elsewhere could give even the ECB pause.

As Sebastian Mallaby of the Council on Foreign Relations writes in a recent post on the fragile balance in Greece:

There are no easy ways out. For more than a year, Europe's leaders have pretended otherwise, kicking the can down the road with stopgap measures. But voters in both Greece and the core countries are running out of patience. The euro, intended to unify Europe, is driving it apart. A crunch may be approaching.

So the tightrope walk continues for another day. It's not anyone's idea of fun but it sure beats the alternative.

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About This Author
Colin Barr
Colin Barr
Senior Writer, Fortune

Colin Barr has covered finance for Fortune.com since November 2007. Previously he was a writer and editor for TheStreet.com, winning a 2006 Society of American Business Editors and Writers award for "The Five Dumbest Things on Wall Street," and for Dow Jones Newswires. He is a 1991 graduate of Penn State and lives in Port Washington, N.Y., with his wife Meena Bose and their two kids.

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