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Greece: How the Bond Vigilantes Left It in Ruins

The European Union's experiment with a single currency is deep in crisis because Europe failed to learn from the Greeks. Not today's Greeks—the ancient Greeks, specifically Odysseus, the hero of Homer's epic poem. Odysseus knew his limitations. Realizing he was vulnerable to temptation, he ordered his sailors to tie him to the mast of his ship. That way he could listen to the bewitching song of the Sirens without obeying their call to steer the ship onto the rocks.

Today's Sirens are the investors and traders of the global bond market, who lure nations into tapping abundant credit at low rates when times are good. If a nation borrows too much, those open-handed investors abruptly turn into vigilantes who punish the country by making new loans scarce and expensive. Greece has fallen into precisely that trap. It got low-interest loans by promising to behave responsibly and keep its budget deficit low. That gained it admission to the single-currency zone in 2001. But because Greece was never tied to the mast, it kept spending. Its debt is now about 125% of gross domestic product, more than double the supposed EU ceiling. Eventually, all that debt brought down the wrath of the bond-market vigilantes, who drove up yields by betting against Greek debt, precipitating what has become the worst mess for the euro since the single currency's launch on Jan. 1, 1999.