The Olympics are here at last and no event is more exciting than the great Debt Race. Nations have been in training for years to get up to the mark for this gruelling competition. Would-be champions line up to display how to break all previously known records of insolvency.
I really don't blame you if you have broken the habit of a lifetime and put a bet on this. So long as it was in the Euro currency you are not losing anything.
First out onto the track is plucky little Ireland, with total national debts of €124 billion. It doesn't sound much but with such a modest population the debt per citizen works out at €27,214. And since most of the citizens are leaving for Australia nowadays, that is unlikely to go down. Neck and neck with Ireland comes Portugal, with €154 billion. It sounds as if they are leading over Ireland but the handicap system takes number of citizens into account so that it works out as €14,555 per head.
A long-standing favourite in this race is Greece, whose national debt is about €354 billion. That's a debt per citizen of €31,407. Bookies note that despite the repeated bailouts by the European Currency Bank, and an austerity regime that has left people searching through bins for food, Greece is still lengthening its stride in this race. Greek deputy finance minister Christos Staikouras warned today on state TV: "Cash reserves are almost zero. We are certainly on the brink, we did not receive the aid tranche we were supposed to and we have the pending issue of an ECB bond maturing on August 20...."
None of them are really in the big league compared to Spain. At the last count, Spain's national debt was €732 billion, and while that is only €15,932 per citizen, Spain has been showing remarkable form when it comes to high unemployment, a slump in retail and productivity, an all-time depression in the holiday business that was the mainstay of its economy and a crash in housing prices. A contender to watch.
Rumour has it that Spain hinted to the German government a few days ago that a bailout of €300 billion euros would be welcome. Germany told them they quite understood the situation but it would be more proper to act after the new European Stability Mechanism is set up. When it does, it may have more pressing applications to deal with. Italian national debt is nearly €2 trillion, three times that of Spain. While this is still smaller than its GDP, it is rather too big to be hidden in a suitcase inside your wardrobe. And it could be upped without warning if some of its regions such as Sicily decide to default on their own debts to the Italian government.
Where will the money come from to set up the new European Stability Mechanism?
From countries like France, Germany and the UK of course, which helps us to roar into the lead in the debt race almost out of sight. France's national debt is €1.7 trillion and may rise if new Socialist premier Francois Hollande goes ahead with his programme of spending to kick-start the economy. The UK's National Debt stands at £1.2 trillion in sterling, pretty much neck and neck with France, and unless we sell an awful lot of pizzas during the Olympics our GDP won't be going anywhere for a long time. Debt per citizen: £19,329.
But there is one dark horse in this race. German National Debt is €2,020,157,266,154, i.e. €2 trillion and this is approaching a level of 90% of its GDP. It has borne the brunt of successive bailouts and is contemplating the very real prospect of losing its AAA credit rating. The new far-left leader of Greece has announced that it is very likely to default and leave the euro, and Angela Merkel's coalition partners are openly demanding that it be allowed to do so. If it does not, the entire Euro currency zone faces imminent collapse.
So it's not surprising that tickets for the great Olympic Debt Race are changing hands fast on the black market. Be there or miss the greatest sporting event of the century!