Greece Hits the Panic Button

| Fri Apr. 23, 2010 10:10 AM EDT

The soap opera in Greece is nearing its final stage:

Describing his country’s economy as “a sinking ship,” the Greek prime minister formally requested an international bailout on Friday, an unprecedented step that will test the bonds of the European Union.

....“The time has come for us to ask our partners in the E.U. to activate the mechanism we formulated together,” he said, referring to an emergency aid package arranged two weeks ago. The plan foresees up to €30 billion, or $40 billion, in loans from Greece’s euro-zone partners, as well as up to €15 billion from the International Monetary Fund.

....The announcement means that money from the I.M.F. can be expedited once the board of the fund has approved the terms. The fund is expected to provide €12 billion, according to E.U. officials. “We are prepared to move expeditiously on this request,” Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the I.M.F. managing director, said in a statement issued in Washington.

The IMF money is just a stopgap. The real question is how quickly the EU will approve its part of the rescue and whether it will fix Greece's problems anyway. "The markets are betting on the country going bankrupt," one Greek official told the Wall Street Journal, and once the markets do that they generally don't stop, bailout or not. My guess is that speculators are going to start a regime of betting-with-extreme-prejudice pretty quickly, and it's not at all clear that even €40 billion will be enough for Greece to defend itself from that. And then Portugal will be up to bat. Stay tuned.