How far is Britain from Greece? That's the question lurking behind British headlines in recent days. And the answer isn't 1,400 miles. We're talking finance here, not geography.
Watching the scenes in Athens, people understandably want to know whether there's any chance of the same happening here.
You'll be relieved to hear the answer: however bad things might be here, we really are a long way from being Greece.
Here's what we have in common with Greece: our budget deficit is more than 12% of GDP; our national savings rate is too low; and we've both recently won the chance to host the Olympics.
You may laugh, but for Greece, the cost of hosting the Olympics played a non-negligible part in putting it where it is today. Hopefully it won't play a big role in our financial future.
The low rate of national savings tells you that Britain - like Greece, and Portugal, and Spain, and Ireland - has a current-account deficit. We're a net borrower from the rest of the world, which means, at the margin, we're dependent on the rest of the world to fund a good portion of our government debt.
But if I tell you the magnitudes involved, I promise you'll feel better. Last year, Greece ran a current account deficit of more than 11% of GDP - the highest in the entire OECD. Portugal's was not much better: nearly 10%. Spain's was 5.3% of GDP. Compared to that lot, the UK's roughly 2.5% of GDP current-account gap looks rather small beer. And Ireland's was similar.
What's important about these figures is that the Club Med countries - I'm trying to avoid the word "Piigs" - went into this crisis with even deeper macroeconomic imbalances than we did. That ought to make our path out easier as well.
But of course, there's still our whopping budget deficit. That's not so different from Greece. It's also why we have been somewhat affected by the squalls on the Continent in the past few weeks: the spread on UK sovereign default swaps has been rising for all the "high-borrower" countries recently, even those which, like the UK, have relatively low stocks of debt.
But as the chart above shows, the speculators who bet on these instruments - as Robert Peston points out today, much of it is indeed speculation - these speculators are still distinguishing between the UK and the likes of Portugal and Spain. True, as I pointed out in a post late last year, this market is rating us more as a AA country than a AAA one. We have, to that extent, moved in Greece's direction. But there's a long way to go.
High borrowing matters short-term because you have to ask the bond markets for money more often. It matters medium-term because it pretty quickly adds to your stock of debt. But it is relevant how much debt you had to start off with. Britain started out with much smaller stock of debt as a share of GDP than Greece - it's now about 55% of GDP. In Greece, it's well over 110% (no point getting too precise, given the rate both of those figures are going up.)
But the two most important reasons to sleep more soundly tonight than the Greek prime minister are the average maturity of our debt, and the pound.
According to the Debt Management Office, the average maturity of UK sovereign debt is 14 years. In the US, it's about four years. In France and Germany it's six or seven. Greek debt has an average maturity of just under 8 years. As I mentioned yesterday, they have about 10% of their debt coming due in the next few months.
That makes an enormous difference to the amount of gilts we need to ask the debt markets to buy in a given year. It also means that even fairly large increases in funding costs will only have a gradual effect on the cost of servicing UK debt. That burden is still lower today, as a share of total spending, than it was for most of the 1980s and 1990s.
For Greece, debt servicing costs now account for just under 12% of GDP. In the UK, it's costing less than 3% of GDP.
You might be surprised to hear that Germany, France and Italy are all going to be issuing more sovereign debt on the markets in 2010 - even though our budget deficit, in absolute terms, is more than double the size of theirs. That is entirely because of the relative maturity of our debt.
Take Germany as an example: its budget deficit in 2010 will be about 140 billion euros, whereas ours will be about 190 billion. But because of the amount of debt it has coming to redemption, Fitch, the ratings agency, reckons that Germany will be looking to issue about 386 billon euros in new sovereign debt this year.
The estimate for France is 454 billion. Whereas the UK will be issuing a "mere" 279 billion. That is one reason why French CDS spreads have crept up a bit as well.
And then there's the final reason to feel a bit more cheerful: the pound. We may be talking about a currency crisis in the eurozone. But, arguably, a big part of the problem for Greece - at least from the standpoint of international investors - is that it can't have one. Its currency can't devalue independent of the rest of the eurozone.
As Michael Dicks pointed out in his recent contribution to the IFS Green Budget, if you're thinking only about the currency, we've already had our crisis. The pound fell further in 2008-9 than during any of the sterling "crises" of the 1960s and 1970s. Or the ERM.
We could face an uphill struggle exporting our way out of recession, especially when most of the rest of the world is trying to do the same thing. But a 25% devaluation is a good way to start.
We're facing some enormous challenges coming out of this crisis - fiscal and economic. Given the rate at which our debt is climbing, the clarity of politicians' commitment to bring down borrowing will be crucial to how we fare in the markets over the next year or two. But, you will be relieved to hear, the government - any government - will really have to work hard to turn us into Greece.
Update 08:30, 16 Feb 2010: A few comments about the UK debt numbers in this piece, which some have questioned (eg comments 14 and 22).
I said that UK public debt was roughly 55% of GDP (though I did add the figure was rough - the numbers are changing so fast.) The 55% number is the Treasury's estimate for the end of March 2010, or the end of the 2009-10 fiscal year. The figure is 59% if you include the upfront cost of the financial sector bailouts.
Excluding those interventions, (the estimated long-term cost of which are factored into the medium-term forecasts) the debt forecast for the end of fiscal year 2010/11 (March 2011) is indeed much higher - around 65%, as you would expect with a more than 12 % of GDP deficit.
More seriously, one of you pointed out that I used a net debt figure for the UK and a gross debt figure for Greece. That was careless of me. Sorry. If you use the Maastricht treaty definition of gross public debt for both countries - which doesn't take account of any of the government's financial assets - the comparison is less flattering to the UK. But it doesn't change the basic story.
According to the OECD, UK debt on the Maastricht definition stood at 66% of GDP in 2009. That compares with 111% for Greece. The figures next year are forecast to be 78% for the UK and 120% for Greece. The average gross debt ratio for the Euro area is expected to be 85% in 2010.