A Greek tragedy: How the debt crisis spread like a virus in 'Contagion'
Experts are worried about whether the Greek economy may flatline.
September 19th, 2011
02:08 PM ET

A Greek tragedy: How the debt crisis spread like a virus in 'Contagion'

A look at the plot of the No. 1 film at the box office, “Contagion,” shows a striking thematic resemblance to the debt crisis in Greece.

“’Contagion’ follows the rapid progression of a virus that kills within days. As the epidemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself.” That’s what the film’s website says.

So how exactly does that relate to Greece, you ask?

In a theoretical movie that followed the "Contagion" effect in Greece, the plot would follow the rapid progression of debt that is crippling economies. As the debt drives up interest rates and sends financial markets plunging, the worldwide political and financial communities race to find the public money to stabilize markets and control the financial panic that spreads faster than the debt itself.

More than a year ago, Michael Shuman, writing on Time.com, told how this script played out in the Asian financial crisis of 1997, and how Greece might be the latest sequel.

That is in part because the crisis in Europe has turned into an epidemic of sorts as it spreads from country to country. It's left the European Union struggling and the eurozone's financial health hanging in the balance, and it threatens prospects for a U.S. recovery if the global economy is in shambles. Which is part of the reason that U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner huddled with European finance ministers in search of a way out of the debt crisis.

And it's not just a financial crisis that's spreading. It's the fear too.  In the same way that riots in England have been blamed on economic hardships, reports out of Greece show the once carefree residents are getting "more depressed by the day" with depression and suicide rates growing.

Can an answer be found in time?

"Time is running out."

That simple statement encapsulates a sense of urgency and fear regarding the Greek debt crisis and the larger implications for Europe's economy as well as the global economy.

It came from Marc Chandler, the global head of currency strategy for Brown Brothers Harriman, after meetings between European finance ministers "ended without substantial progress" this weekend.

For months now there have been talks about how to bail out Greece specifically, as well as how to deal with the crisis spreading to core members of the European Union.

The big question is, will time run out before the international community can find an answer? The big fear is that it will.

The Europe default risk signal is flashing bright red. It's the equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control signaling a disease is spreading and needs to be contained - quickly.

A lot of countries are in trouble, but Greece leads the way. Experts say the probability that Greece will default on its $345 billion in debt is just about 100%.

What's being done to avoid a global economic crisis?

Greece was given a second bailout on July 21, amid concerns that Greece's default would spiral into a financial crisis within the eurozone. The plan was to restructure Greece's crippling debt.

The plan was dubbed Greece Bailout version 2.0. But can it work?

"There is no solution to the Euroland's sovereign debt crisis in sight," Carl Weinberg, an economist at High Frequency Economics, told CNNMoney.com. "Markets will continue to be fundamentally unstable and volatile as long as we can think."

The European Union recently touted a new aid package, which officials said will cover all of Greece's financing needs.

Tu Packard, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics, told CNNMoney.com that the plans should go a long way toward making Greece's debt burden sustainable and contain the threat of debt contagion. "People are interested in a realistic path forward," she said. "And until now, there wasn't clarity."

The news of a new aid package  followed some extensive delays in decisions that many said made the crisis worse.

Douglas McWilliams, founder and chief executive of the Centre for Economic and Business Research, one of Europe's leading economics consultancies, said that if European leaders don't act decisively by restructuring the euro and European debt within a month, the markets will force it on them.

"Failure to act would mean riots, bank collapses and would set back economies for a decade or more," McWilliams wrote in a column for CNN. "For too long, economically illiterate politicians have tried to deal with Europe's economic and financial problems by covering them with ever thicker layers of sticking plaster."

There have also been calls for a bond backed by all 17 countries in the eurozone - and those calls have been growing louder as things have gotten worse.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel believes euro bonds are the "absolutely wrong" way to defuse the crisis.

"Euro bonds are politically unworkable," Michael Hewson, an analyst at CMC Markets in London, told CNNMoney.com. "They would need to be ratified in all 17 eurozone states, and without Merkel's support, that's literally impossible."

So what is possible?

We don't know. It's the worst kind of waiting game, one where we wait and see if Europe's economy flatlines.

What are the implications?

Greece is quite simply running out of money.  The EU is struggling to provide life support to the entire continent while trying to quarantine each individual situation.

The best hope will come on September 29 when the German Parliament will vote on the second Greek bailout and the stability fund overhaul.

If that doesn't work, there is a possibility of a major default, which would likely cause the virus to cross Greek borders.

As the collapse of the Lehman Brothers financial services firm set off the 2008 U.S economic crisis, some say Greece has the potential to set off a similar chain reaction. George Soros, billionaire hedge-fund investor, said the impact has the potential to be a lot worse.

There are concerns that things are so bad, even if Greece is spared, there likely won't be enough left over to help other countries in need of aid.

In keeping with the "Contagion" metaphor, there may only be enough vaccines to save some, but not all economies.

If this is indeed the end game for Greece, as some have speculated, the question then is: How many casualties will there be before a cure for the economic crisis is found?

As for the long-term solution: Consider how the CDC would have to work with the World Health Organization to stop an epidemic and whether that is the right structure.

The same idea applies to the debt crisis. Has this contagion shown us there needs to be a dramatic change of structure across Europe, including restructuring the EU itself?

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Filed under: Economy • Greece
soundoff (102 Responses)
  1. EdCobaltBlu

    greece has greased too many of its citizens greasy pockets...

    it is time to bust out the simple green..

    the only question is.... is the green simply coming from Europe or from the US., or from both ????

    I worry about the health of my 401K......

    September 19, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Light In The Black

      Your 401K will be on life support soon.
      RIP.

      September 19, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Light In The Black

    Before it was plantation owners and black slaves.

    Today, its financial slavery, and it includes all of us.

    The deliberate destruction of the middle class in America.

    It is now spreading to other countries.

    The plan is a giant spider web, so big you cant see all of the pieces.

    September 19, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Derek

    Every Euro eventually ends up in China and we never see it back because it's used there for new investments to further undermines western productivity. The fact that this story is not run by main media networks implies that Asian investors are already running the media corporations.

    September 19, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Aaron

    That's what happens when you're a liberal Socialist government.

    September 19, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • geoz

      I'll bet you wouldn't know a liberal socialist govt if it was your mom.

      September 19, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Uncle Bill

      Socialist Governments are bailing out capitalist, deregulated out of control markets.

      September 19, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Report abuse |
  5. desert voice (troubledgoodangel or Nathanael or Voiceinthedesert)

    Ameuro, stupid. I say, print trillions in ameuro as a temporary fix. Pair it to the dollar, in value. Invest the ameuro you have prinded in America, and all the other countries which have large dept. Help them in this way. Help is Divine! It can only bring good in the long run! Don't mix for now your euro with ameuro you print, nor with the dollar. Let the euro stay where it is, and so the dollar. Once all needy nations are helped with the ameuro you print, they will repay you in ameuro!

    September 19, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  6. db

    And to think this all started off with greedy banks and wall street investors making wild and highly speculative transactions that defy anything reasonable. Mean while the US tax payer is bailing them out and no one goes to jail over the mess and the money is never recovered. Seems to me there are a lot of payoffs going on as no one could spend that much money. Why are the individuals who created these problems to begin with not being held responsible and their ill gotten gains taken away and returned to those that were screwed? Oh, that's right Congress is in cahoots with them all and they make the laws!

    September 19, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • tax expert

      how do you figure the money was never recovered? Check your facts! All the major banks paid back the Gov't with interest.

      September 19, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mayhem

    Sigh. Same as it ever was.

    September 19, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Sickofitall

    Greece is this weeks excuse. Maybe everything in poor shape financially needs to collapse and we start over again.

    September 19, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  9. David

    Aaron, here's an idea: think before you speak. The Greeks haven't had anything like "a liberal socialist government" in decades. Stop listening to Limbaugh. Grow a brain.

    September 19, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Ted Ward

    Let's hope the Greek "debt" contagion isn't as bad as that thing the Greek "democracy" contagion...of course that took two thousand years to incubate...

    September 19, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  11. concerned

    Is CNN selling ad space in news stories now?

    September 19, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  12. atinks

    The answer is simple, take the money back from those who stole it and give it back to the rightful owners

    September 19, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brandon

      Cause it's just that simple..

      September 19, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  13. City On A Shining Hill

    "The problem with socialism, despite its great appeal to redistribute a nation's wealth to help the poor and disadvantaged, is this failed economic model eventually runs out of the funds to prop it up-the taxpayers.

    Greeks pay some 55% of their incomes to the state, and 60% work for the government in powerful unions.

    Well, that model will not result in a booming economy!

    And, America wants to adopt it, and already has. We vote accordingly!

    "The borrower is always slave, to the lender"-King Solomon in the Psalms.

    September 19, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dimos

      you are so right...Despite the agony this crisis has brought, in the end of the day will transform Greece and its economy into a different , better type of 'animal' and this should have been done decades ago

      September 20, 2011 at 5:19 am | Report abuse |
  14. aflyer

    They all seem to know greece will default yet they keep propping it up with more money – why?!?! It will eventually fall. The unfunded wars have cost one trillion dollars and for what – bin laden killed and a few dozen bad guys?! We have not won a war since ww2 and yet we keep starting fights all over the world. No wonder we are the laughing stock of the world now!! Stop the wars, stop foreign aid, invest in america and americans first! Cut the military budget by half and give to the schools and colleges. Wake up america. It is now or never!!!

    September 19, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  15. wes

    Nothing to do with raising taxes, huh?

    September 19, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
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