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The European Debt Crisis: A Beginner's Guide

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The European sovereign debt crisis! It -- wait, come back. This is interesting, we promise. The debt crisis is one of the biggest stories of the year, maybe of the decade. If you're American, how can you tell whether the situation across the pond affects you?

Take our quiz to find out:

1) Do you like money?
2) Would you rather have money than not have any money?

If you answered "yes" to either of the above, then the Europe situation probably has bearing on your life. Here's a quick explanation of what's happened.

(More of a picture person? Scroll down for graphics that help to explain the crisis)

WHAT IS THE EUROPEAN DEBT CRISIS?

In its most basic form, it's just this: Some countries in Europe have way too much debt, and now they risk not being able to pay it all back. Simple!

There's more to it than that, of course, but when people talk about the "crisis," what they're worried about is that a big, scary, flashpoint event will happen -- like one or more of the eurozone countries defaulting on its debts -- causing investors to panic and triggering a massive banking shock.

The possibility also looms that one or more countries will pull out of the eurozone -- the 17-nation bloc that use the euro currency, which has been around since 1999. Should any of the eurozone nations drop out of this group, it could lead to a rash of bank failures in Europe, and possibly in the United States as well. Under these circumstances, people and businesses who need money might not be able to get any. We'd be looking at depression for Europe and recession for the rest of the world. Some people argue that an orderly, controlled eurozone break-up would be a good thing for certain struggling debtor nations. Still, even this relatively benign scenario carries economic fallout for Europe and maybe beyond.

HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

The reason everyone is freaking out now is that while some eurozone countries are relatively sound from an economic standpoint, other countries are way over-leveraged, meaning they have too much debt relative to the size of their economies. And the troubles of a few countries could end up affecting everyone, yoked together under one currency for the last decade -- even though their economies functioned according to different habits and enjoyed very different degrees of financial health.

Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain -- gathered under the unfortunate acronym PIIGS -- are some of the most highly leveraged eurozone countries, and most people think that if a disaster happens, it will start with one of them. Italy's debt is 121 percent the size of its economy. For Ireland, that figure is 109 percent. In Greece, it's 165 percent.

The PIIGS took different paths to this scenario. Ireland, for example, underwent a massive real estate bubble, and its banks sustained giant losses. The Irish government wound up rescuing its banks, and now the country is burdened under a huge debt load.

Spain, which now has a 22 percent unemployment rate, also experienced a huge housing bubble. The country didn't indulge in excessive borrowing -- rather, it ended up with high deficits because it couldn't collect enough tax revenue to cover its expenses.

Greece, on the other hand, not only borrowed beyond its means, but exacerbated the problem with lots of overspending, little economic production to make up the difference, and some creative bookkeeping to prevent eurozone authorities from realizing the true extent of the situation.

The deficits weren't piling up everywhere. Countries with strong economies like Germany and France were keeping their output high and their debt at a manageable level. But when 17 nations use the same currency, trouble spreads quickly.

Now that the size of the PIIGS' debt has become clear, investors are getting more and more reluctant to buy bonds from European countries, since many of those countries are heavily in debt -- and the ones that aren't in debt look like they might have to assume responsibility for the ones that are. Investors don't want to put their money into bonds if they think they might not eventually get that money back. And governments in Europe have a lot of debt and not much money -- and it's not clear how they're going to correct this.

WHOSE FAULT IS IT?

Blame often gets cast on the "irresponsible" countries who borrowed too much, taking advantage of the low interest rates available to all euro member nations. However, many argue that it's not right in all cases to blame indebted governments for their own situation, since not every country with high deficits actually engaged in reckless borrowing.

Others say the euro currency itself is to blame -- arguing that the idea that a single currency could meet the needs of 17 different economies was inherently flawed. Typically, a country's central bank can adjust a nation's money supply to encourage or inhibit growth as a way of dealing with economic turmoil. However, the nations yoked together under the euro frequently haven't had that option.

If Spain and Germany hadn't both spent the last several years on the euro, for example, then they wouldn't have been able to borrow at the same low interest rates -- an interest rate set by the European Central Bank, and one that made more sense for Berlin than for Madrid.

Greece might still be shouldering huge debts if not for the euro, but maybe it wouldn't be in a position to take down the rest of Europe with it. And if the PIIGS all still had their own individual currencies, they might be able to export their way out of the mess they're in -- selling goods on the international market until their respective situations were a little less dire. But as it is, they can't.

Alternatively, if you like, you could say the interconnectedness of the modern financial industry is to blame. That's certainly a reason default by Italy or a departure of the eurozone by a fed-up Germany -- to name two examples -- could reverberate around the world.

FROM THE OLD WORLD TO THE NEW

The crisis in Europe could end up affecting the U.S. in some very direct ways. American banks have billions of dollars at risk in European banks. And while that's actually a relatively small fraction of U.S. banks' holdings, the indirect damage could be greater: U.S. business owners could be facing a credit crunch if overseas banks topple.

Further, the U.S. stands to suffer huge trade losses if Europe slips into a recession. Fourteen percent of all U.S. exports go to the eurozone, so weak consumption in Europe spells trouble in the States.

At the moment, a downturn in Europe is the last thing the U.S. needs. Growth is slow in America, and millions of people aren't working who'd like to be. The U.S. needs to be producing and exporting more, not less, and it's already hard enough for small businesses in the States to get credit from banks.

The Great Recession technically ended in 2009, but for a lot of people -- people in poverty, people who can't afford food, people working long hours for low wages -- it feels like things are as bad as ever. A financial emergency in Europe, triggered by some event that sends investors running for cover, could take all of America's problems and make them bigger.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

This is a fast-moving story, and by the time you read this, circumstances may have already changed. As of this writing, though, all of Europe is basically trying to do damage control. European Union authorities have put together a funding package of 150 billion euro for the International Monetary Fund to disperse to debt-stricken eurozone nations, and many countries are using inventive asset-juggling tricks to get capital into their banks without officially bailing anyone out.

Earlier this month, eurozone authorities drew up a tentative proposal to enforce stricter consequences on countries that borrow beyond an agreed-upon limit. The deal would also require eurozone nations to balance their budgets, and aims to bring members of the currency bloc into greater sync from a fiscal standpoint.

EU leaders will meet again on January 30 to further discuss this deal. In the meantime, European governments are doing all they can to soothe investors -- a task made harder by ominous rumblings from credit rating agencies like Moody's, Fitch and Standard & Poor's, which have all downgraded or threatened to downgrade numerous countries and financial institutions in the eurozone and elsewhere. (You may remember Standard & Poor's from the fun downgrade debacle of this past summer, when that agency lowered the United States' sovereign credit rating one notch and caused markets to spaz out.)

At the moment, it's not clear whether any of the curative measures in the works will allow Europe to avoid a major financial downturn. Some onlookers are skeptical that the eurozone nations can reach a workable deal, since the countries have a poor track record of working together on financial matters. And things are likely to remain on a hair trigger even if a deal progresses, since bank-to-bank relationships rely on trust and credibility, and even the perception of a crisis could quickly become self-fulfilling.

Meanwhile, as all this is going on, troubled eurozone countries are pledging to cut back government spending to show they can be trusted -- even though this results in financial misery for the people in those countries, and will in all likelihood make it harder for Europe's economy to gain any momentum in the months to come.

Is there anything you can do about the situation in Europe? Not really -- except keep an eye on it. Disaster isn't a foregone conclusion at this point, but if things do go south on the Continent, the business climate in America will likely get worse before it gets better. You'll want to be able to see that coming if it does.

Below are graphics featuring a country-by-country break down of some of the most important indicators of the crisis :

Debt As A Percentage Of GDP

The Unemployment Rate

Projected Gross Domestic Product

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