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How the Greece debt crisis threatens the world

Unlike Vegas, what happens in Greece isn't staying in Greece.

A crisis over Greece's mountainous debt is spilling into other European countries, roiling stock markets in the United States and Asia and stoking concerns of a setback in global economic recovery.

Stephen Albee, president of the Tampa Trade & World Affairs Council, said the Mediterranean mess has potential to wreak havoc on the U.S. economy, particularly if a European bailout doesn't take hold and the financial squeeze worsens in countries like Portugal. Right now, he's in wait-and-see mode.

"It's kind of like the oil spill in the gulf," Albee said. "You're waiting to see if it comes this way because the results could be devastating."

Here's a closer look at how the crisis unfolded and where it might be heading:

What's Greece's financial situation?

Greece has borrowed its way into an unsustainable position, with a bigger national debt than the country's economic output in a year. The country's national debt is projected to reach 120 percent of its gross domestic product this year. Struggling to borrow enough money to pay its debt, Greece has moved closer to financial collapse.

What caused the crisis?

Years of free spending, cheap lending and lack of financial constraints took their toll. Some of Greece's financial weaknesses were hidden. When the global recession took hold and tourism and trade revenues fell, the country's fiscal freewheeling was exposed. Last October, the Greek government disclosed that its 2009 budget deficit was 12.7 percent, more than double a previously announced figure.

How has Greece responded?

The government has slashed spending and put some unpopular "austerity measures" in place. It raised taxes on tobacco, alcohol and fuel, raised the official retirement age by two years from 61 to 63 and cut wages in the public sector.

Is it getting better?

To the contrary, Greece is inching closer to default and debt concerns are worsening in some other countries. Ratings agency Standard & Poor's on Tuesday downgraded Greece's debt to junk status and downgraded Portugal's rating by two notches. On Wednesday, the agency downgraded Spain's debt rating by one step.

Why are stock markets in Asia and the United States impacted by what happens in Greece?

Two words: global economy. Consider Europe is the largest market for Asian exports. Financial markets and global banking networks are intertwined. Plus, stock markets hate uncertainty.

Isn't the European Union bailing out Greece?

Germany, the biggest player among 16 countries making up the euro zone, took the lead on crafting a Greek rescue plan. However, Germany's Parliament has yet to approve the proposed aid package of 45 billion euros, or about $60 billion. Germany this week said it must first see more deficit reduction from Greece before fulfilling its pledge.

The International Monetary Fund reportedly is also considering a bigger bailout package for Greece, between 100 billion euros and 120 billion euros over the next three years.

Portugal and Spain may seek aid as well.

What should we be watching for next?

Whether or not Greece defaults on its debt depends on a couple of factors: successful negotiations for a bailout and any investor appetite to buy its bonds.

Some fear a Greek default could eventually spread to other large, fragile economies, including the United Kingdom and even Japan. Already, investors are bracing for growing debt problems in Portugal and Spain. The Republic of Ireland's fragile economy is also a looming concern.

What does this mean for tourists?

Americans who plan to travel abroad will benefit from a continued decline in the value of the euro. Europe is less expensive now than anytime in the past year. Tourists, however, could face disruptions from strikes.

Any good coming out of this?

If the situation doesn't explode into a larger crisis, there could be some short-term economic benefits for the United States. American companies may be able to raise more money through selling corporate debt. Oil prices have fallen in tandem with anticipation of a drop in European demand. U.S. treasuries have become a safer investment vehicle.

But the rise of the dollar also makes it more expensive for American manufacturers to sell their products overseas.

Information from Times wires was used in this report.

How the Greece debt crisis threatens the world 04/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 28, 2010 10:46pm]

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