Uncharted Territory

May 13, 2012

Gifts to Greece

My first thought this morning was to write about the so-called UK drought again. Maybe I’ll post something on that later.

Then I had a strong urge to comment on the absurdly excessive punishment of Lewis Hamilton (a 5 place penalty or inadmission of his final run – moreorless equivalent punishments – would have been appropriate) after an error by his team in qualifying for today’s Spanish GP. I’d hardly call myself an expert on the sport, but a previous foray into F1 commentary attracted a good deal of attention.

Instead I’m going to channel my annoyance at the spoiling of what might have vaguely resembled a sporting event in Barcelona towards the Greeks.

All I want to convey is one simple point, that the Greek people have benefited hugely from the international loans on which they have already partially defaulted and look increasingly like failing to repay in their entirety.

We haven’t invented this thing we call money just for fun. Money allows resources to be allocated. If you borrow it, spend it and fail to repay the loan, you have acquired or consumed resources that could have been used by someone else. Take the Athens metro railway and all the other billions worth of infrastructure to support the 2004 Olympic Games. How was that funded? I’ll hazard a guess. Borrowed money, at least in part. And what will happen to all that capital investment when Greece defaults? It’ll still be there. These assets will remain in existence indefinitely for the benefit of the Greek people. To the extent they haven’t been paid for, they’ve effectively been stolen from the rest of the world.

Some loans may be riskier than others, because that’s how the world is, but, unlike equity investments, loans are designed to be repaid. Financial disruption – on a global scale over the last 5 years – arises when debts are not repaid. So, because of the knock-on effects, Greece’s default is worse than theft! The entire EU has been plunged into recession in large part because of the need for the financial system to prepare for possible Greek default. Instead of using capital to support new lending, banks have been writing down Greek (and other) debt and taking actual losses.

Obviously we’re just reaping what was sown when Greece and other European sovereigns borrowed unsustainably. The question is how to prevent repeats of this cycle of behaviour?

Let’s mull over that question for a minute. What is the popular conception of what’s going on?

I think it was Arthur Smith I heard on the radio yesterday saying the Greeks should be let off their debts because “it’s not the fault” of those protesting. In what sense is that, Arthur? Are you perhaps saying the average Greek took no executive decisions regarding the nation’s finances? Clearly true. But isn’t a large part of the problem that they haven’t paid and continue not to pay their taxes? What do you think is fairer, that every Greek homeowner should pay a special tax (they’re refusing) or that you and I should find the money?

And isn’t a large part of the problem the Greek public-sector? What do you think is fairer, that Greek workers should take whatever pay cuts it takes to balance the books (as has happened elsewhere in Europe, such as in Estonia – now growing again – Latvia and Lithuania) or that you and I should find the money?

Many non-wealthy Greeks must also be culpable of wilfully participating in a cash economy, benefiting from lower prices for services whilst complicit in tax avoidance. What do you think is fairer, that the Greeks start paying taxes commensurate with their public spending like people in most other countries, or that you and I should find the money?

But the really interesting point is that Greece is a democracy. They’ve chosen their own government since the ousting of the colonels in the 1970s. Collectively, then, they’ve repeatedly elected politicians, at least some of which have overspent, undertaxed and cooked the books, or appointed officials to do so on their behalf. Clearly, collectively, the Greeks have benefited from this behaviour. I’m intrigued, Arthur, whether you’re suggesting that, collectively, the Greek people are also not responsible for the situation they find themselves in.

That’s probably enough. After all, Arthur is a national treasure, practically the new Queen Mother, and perhaps a little fragile. Maybe he just didn’t think. Maybe, like the QM, he inhabits a world where decisions are made by waving a magic wand. Maybe, like the QM, he lives in a world where one need take no responsibility for one’s finances.

I also caught a snippet this morning of someone on the Andrew Marr Show invoking the precedent of Argentina. That great and honourable country, that upstanding, exemplary member of the international community most recently defaulted on their debts about a decade ago. And it’s been great for their economy! Who’d have thought it? It’d be great for my personal finances if I went out and bought a house, a car, new furnishings and white goods, new shoes, clothes and so on and then didn’t bother paying for them. I’m sure I’d feel pretty well off for a few years too.

Let’s pick on someone else. Arianna Huffington writes in the NYT:

“Yes, the Greeks acted irresponsibly before the economic collapse — the same way my father had acted irresponsibly in his private and professional life. But that is not reason to punish the children, to destroy their future as part of a remedy for a past for which they bear no responsibility.”

What Arianna is saying – for some reason “bleeding heart liberal” is the outmoded phrase that comes to mind – is a little more sophisticated than Arthur Smith’s indignant genialism. We have to draw a line, she says, to protect the innocent. Though, I can’t help pointing out yet again, these “innocent” are nevertheless beneficiaries of the misappropriated funds spent in Greece over the last decade or so. Perhaps they’ll remember that every time they hop on Athens’ shiny new metro trains.

The fear gripping financial markets – and contributing to the unnecessary economic hardship and suffering of innocent little children currently taking place in, say, the UK – is that other countries will follow Arianna’s line of reasoning too. Why shouldn’t Ireland, Spain, Portugal and even Italy say “don’t punish the children”? Having elected profligate, irresponsible governments that have given them what they wanted – low taxes, high spending – why won’t they now elect governments to satisfy their new desire for debt writeoff with some kind of moral justification (right wing nationalist or left wing anti-capitalist – take your pick, or, hey, what the hell, you can even pick both!).

If we want financial stability – quite possibly a good thing, I suggest, in light of the 1930s, just as a for example – then debts have to be repaid. And sovereign debts would be a good start.

So how can the international community protect itself against freeloaders? Against those countries who run up debts, fail to collect enough tax and then, in the words of the song about the girl next door and the bathroom floor, plead “It Wasn’t Me”?

Here’s my suggestion. Many of the countries that default are serial offenders. There’s something deeply ingrained, in their DNA if you like, that leads them to spend too much and collect too little tax. So cut them off from international finance for long enough for them to lose thir habits. This would be simple to implement. The financial services industry is highly regulated (all that effort’s been really effective, hasn’t it?). Regulators in responsible countries (say the UK, the US, the EU apart from Greece) could simply demand that no financial institution or its subsidiaries (maybe even no company) lends at all to a government that has defaulted on sovereign debt over the last 50 years – or maybe even more. Or, crucially, to any institution in that country dependent on its government, such as a bank or a company.

Since holding the currency of the defaulted country would constitute lending, all investment in defaulted countries would have to be funded locally in their own currency. Imports would require foreign currency that would have to be acquired beforehand by local institutions or individuals, i.e. by selling goods and services as exports (or small amounts of currency to tourists and other visitors). No publicly funded export credit guarantees would be available to UK companies, for example. In effect, such countries would be forbidden from running a trade deficit.

Such a measure would do two things. It would financially quarantine serial defaulters for a time longer than short-term market memory currently manages (defaulters tend to return to the international markets within a decade). And it would give non-defaulters pause for thought.

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1 Comment »

  1. Exactly what truly motivated u to compose “Gifts to Greece Uncharted Territory”?
    Ihonestly appreciated the post! I appreciate it -Joni

    Comment by http://tinyurl.com/chriboyd04562 — January 24, 2013 @ 12:19 pm


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