Ready for another Greek debt crisis? This one is different

Get ready for another Greek debt crisis in Europe. Only this one will be different.

More than two years after the threat of a default by Athens sent officials in Brussels scrambling to prevent a Greek departure from the euro, that prospect is once again on Europe's front burner.

As Greece prepares for elections Jan. 25, the likely winner appears to be the opposition Syriza party, whose leader, Alexis Tsipras, wants to renegotiate the terms of a 2012 European bailout that rescued his country from default.

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With the official unemployment rate still north of 25 percent, Greek voters have apparently lost patience with the "austerity" measures that came with the bailout.

"This only worked on the basis of austerity leading to growth, and it's just been way too slow," said David Gordon, a political analyst and president of International Capital Strategies. "So you have had the politics coming apart."

Those politics have been problematic since the 2008 financial crisis threatened to blow apart Europe's already fragile experiment with a common currency.

Since then, voters in smaller "peripheral" economies such as Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece have chafed under the harsh economic measures imposed by "core" economies, led by Germany, in exchange for help with massive piles of debt left over from the world's epic borrowing binge of the early 2000s.

But while Germany's economy and its bankers have largely shaken off the lingering effects the Great Recession, the recovery has been painfully slow to take hold in most of the rest of Europe. That's produced a widespread anti-European backlash across much of the Continent, with the Greek elections only the latest example.

Flip the script

If a new Greek government again demands that its German-led benefactors give it a break on its debts, though, the script will be very different this time around. During the 2012 standoff, the possibility of a Greek default threatened to inflict widespread collateral damage throughout the European financial system.

Since then, European bankers and investors have had time to unload Greek debt, almost 90 percent of which is now held by euro zone governments. And those governments now have a 500 billion euro ($596 billion) backstop, along with other measures enacted after the 2012 crisis, to help protect them from the financial fallout of a Greek default.

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Even as it leads in the polls, the opposition Syriza party insists it has no desire to engineer a Greek departure from the euro zone. With financial firewalls in place, European leaders are much better positioned to rebuff any such threats from Athens. Over the weekend, a German magazine quoted government sources as saying the currency bloc could weather a so-called Grexit, a position quickly denied by a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Though growth has returned to the central economies of France and Germany, the rest of Europe has yet to see convincing evidence of a recovery. While Ireland has made progress unwinding its government borrowing, Italy and Portugal are still struggling with debts bigger than their gross domestic product.

Amid ongoing economic stagnation, inflation rates have fallen nearly to zero, raising the threat of a dangerous, extended drop in prices—so-called deflation—that economists say could prove much more painful than austerity measures.

Europe's stagnation has also sent the common currency to nine-year lows, which raises the cost of imported goods and cuts the purchasing power of the average household.

All of that has put pressure on Europe's central bankers to spur recovery by embarking on a massive bond-buying program—known as quantitative easing—that will flood the Continent with euros.

Beset by political discord—especially Germany's deep aversion to just that kind of easy money policy—Europe's central bank has been hobbled in its efforts to pursue the kind of aggressive policies undertaken by the U.S. Federal Reserve since the 2008 financial crisis. The European Central Bank is expected to consider the idea at its next meeting on Jan. 22, three days before the Greek election.

The looming battle over Greece's bailout now threatens to further complicate that debate, according Jeffrey Halley, a currency trader at Saxo Capital Markets.

"My feeling," he said, "is the ECB will prefer to wait until the outcome of the Greek elections and the political fallout out from that before moving to a full blown (quantitative easing)."