Uncharted Territory

September 17, 2011

Don’t Backslide on Greece!

You know there’s serious trouble when the Economist runs a two-page editorial, in this case proposing “how to save the euro”.

The Economist agrees with most observers that the problem boils down to how to deal with Greece.

Let’s recap.  Greece, a serial defaulter, essentially fiddled the books to understate its debt in order to be admitted to the euro club, hoping for more economic stability.  Then the financial crisis came, and, as the saying goes, the tide went out and the Greeks were seen to be wearing no trunks.  Not only that, there was an Aegean tsunami on the horizon. Luckily, the Germans had grabbed the deck-chairs so the Greeks aren’t on their own.

What are the Greeks, the Germans and the eurocrats (not to mention the IMF) to do?

What baffles me is the current hysteria from all quarters. Decisive action is not required, as for example, George Osborne insists. The Greek debt is a long-term problem which requires a long-term solution. “Decisive action” implies some kind of quick fix. “Decisive action” is the last thing we need.

In fact, I can see things that can be done to mitigate the situation – economic stimulus measures in the less-indebted eurozone, other European (that includes the UK, Mr Osborne) and other global economies – but I simply can’t see how the central problem could be handled any better than it already is. If that’s not what the markets want to hear then the markets will just have to get over themselves. Some problems just have to be lived with.

Let’s consider the alternatives (I’ve previously written about this on Martin Wolf’s blog at the FT, but I can’t even access that right now, as I terminated my FT subscription in protest at them trying to jack up the price).

1. Greece exits the euro and devalues
This would be catastrophic, at least in the short-term. The Economist discusses the possibility and quotes an estimate that such a step would cost Greece 40-50% of its GDP in the first year (though this seems to assume they leave the EU as well). The trouble is, the “mother of all financial crises” that would result would not be confined to Greece. French and other eurozone banks would take a massive hit, with all kinds of knock-on effects. Even if the initial shock could be contained without seriously recessionary consequences for the remaining eurozone countries, it would simply be a case of “who’s next?” – Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Belgium, France…

2. Greece devalues within the euro
This is the straw that many are now clinging to, including the Economist, but in fact it’s almost as bad as option 1.

First, there’s the moral argument. Why should the beneficiaries of excessive Greek borrowing be forgiven their debts? Greek taxpayers (or non-payers, by all accounts) would escape paying taxes equivalent to the nation’s long-term spending; all Greeks would have benefited from public services that they haven’t fully paid for; Greek public sector workers would have been paid more than the nation could actually afford – the list is endless. The point is, although different Greek constituencies would no doubt blame each other, the entire nation is complicit, though pre-school children can legitimately claim not to have been in a position to influence matters overmuch.

Second, if Greece is let off a large chunk of its debt, why wouldn’t other countries demand the same? Why should the Portuguese, Spanish, Italians, Irish, French and Belgians suffer tax rises and cuts to their public services if Greek debt is simply written down?

Third, and critically, there’s the problem that a Greek default within the euro doesn’t actually solve the underlying problem. It does something about the debt, but not the deficit. If Greek debt is (say) halved from around 140% of GDP to around 70%, they will still not be credit-worthy, because they’d still be running a deficit. There would still be a need for the IMF, EU and ECB troika to help the Greek government somehow bring revenue and expenditure into line. There’d still be a need for wealthy Greeks to pay more taxes, the Greek public sector to spend less and its economy somehow to grow. In the meantime there’d still be a need for someone to lend euros to Greece.

A Greek default within the euro would simply not have the usual effect of sovereign defaults because it would not be accompanied by devaluation.

In fact, the main effect of Greek default within the euro would be for the Greeks to say “thank you very much”. There’d still be a big hit on eurozone banks (including the Greek ones which would need to be recapitalised from somewhere, and not to mention the ECB), although not the automatic loss from lending to the Greek private sector that would occur in the case of option 1 (when devaluation would make it more difficult, to say the least, for Greek companies to service euro-denominated debt).

Now, it seems to me the troika must recognise this. If I was them I’d demand the budget reforms before allowing any kind of Greek default. In particular, the possibility of Greece having to leave the euro needs to be still on the table. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if there hasn’t been a nod and a wink to the off-message officials and politicians (usually German) who regularly float this possibility.

It seems the next payment to Greece is being put off to the last possible moment, even though stumping up is much better for everyone than the alternatives. What puzzles me is that the markets don’t recognise that this brinkmanship is a necessary part of the strategy of forcing Greece to balance its budget in the long-term.

What the Greeks should really be worrying about is the possibility that they haven’t resolved their fiscal problems by the time the rest of the eurozone has recovered (and in particular the banking sector has rebuilt its capital) sufficiently to withstand a Greek default, euro exit and devaluation. Then the eurocrats might just decide to throw them to the wolves.

Still, I wouldn’t rule out a collective loss of nerve and a Greek default within the euro. We’d have to muddle through somehow. If there’s a double-dip, there’s a double-dip – maybe that’s now the least we can expect; if there are further sovereign defaults, the sun will still come up the next morning; if we do end up calling it the Second Great Depression or a Lost Decade, life will still go on. As I said, some problems just have to be lived with.

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