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Record Euro Zone Debt Makes the Crisis Messier

The Zuidas Business District In Amsterdam, Netherlands

Photograph by Marcus Koppen/Gallery Stock

The Zuidas Business District In Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Keynesian solution for Europe’s crisis is government spending to rev up economic growth. Restoring growth will generate more tax revenue, the thinking goes, so the fiscal pump-priming will eventually pay for itself. But debt makes the Keynesian fix harder to implement. Heavily indebted countries can’t spend more for fear of losing the confidence of investors.

Debt, in short, takes away countries’ fiscal wiggle room.

That’s why the European Union’s report today on rising government debt in the single-currency euro zone is troublesome. The organization announced that the government debt-to-GDP ratio increased from 85.3 percent at the end of 2010 to 87.2 percent at the end of 2011. According to Bloomberg News, the 2011 ratio was the highest since the euro was introduced in 1999.

What’s doubly scary is that it’s not just the well-known problem children of Europe like Greece that are seeing government debt rise as a share of gross domestic product. Even the Netherlands, one of the four remaining AAA-rated countries in the euro zone, had an increase in its debt-to-GDP ratio from 62.9 percent to 65.2 percent, according to the European Union.

The Dutch have been stalwart supporters of Germany’s austerity drive until now, but they may be getting weak in the knees. RTL television reported that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte will resign after losing the support of Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in his coalition, following disagreement on an austerity package. “There is a danger that we will see a move to more radical, less Europe-friendly policies in the Netherlands,” Elisabeth Afseth, an analyst at Investec Bank in London, told Bloomberg News.

Here’s an excerpt from the European Union’s announcement with all the relevant figures:
At the end of 2011, the lowest ratios of government debt to GDP were recorded in Estonia (6.0%), Bulgaria (16.3%), Luxembourg (18.2%), Romania (33.3%), Sweden (38.4%), Lithuania (38.5%), the Czech Republic (41.2%), Latvia (42.6%), Slovakia (43.3%) and Denmark (46.5%). Fourteen Member States had government debt ratios higher than 60% of GDP in 2011: Greece (165.3%), Italy (120.1%), Ireland (108.2%), Portugal (107.8%), Belgium (98.0%), France (85.8%), the United Kingdom (85.7%), Germany (81.2%), Hungary (80.6%), Austria (72.2%), Malta (72.0%), Cyprus (71.6%), Spain (68.5%) and the Netherlands (65.2%).

Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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