Sunday, January 24, 2010

Economics 24/01/2010: A Mexican stand-off: Eurozone v Greeks

It is nice to note that the theme picked up by the post below has been followed upon by the continued media debate today:

According Der Spiegel today: the European Commission warned that the euro area’s chances of survival would depend on adjusting the internal imbalances. DG Ecfin apparently claims in a new paper that internal imbalances would weaken confidence in the euro and endanger the cohesion of the monetary union. Rising deficits and weakening competitiveness in several countries, notably Ireland, Spain and Greece are singled out by the Commissions as the main causes of the pressure on the euro. DG Ecfin, allegedly says the necessary adjustment in the deficit countries will require wage moderation to address rising unemployment in the above countries.

And another one from today: here.

So what is going on with Greece? Not much, it appears. Just like Ireland did before it, Greece decided to throw some smoke around its fiscal debacle with promises of reaching the 3% SGP limit by 2012 (Ireland is now saying it will be 2014, although ESRI’s presentation last Monday was clearly showing they expect deficit to be well above 3% level then).

And like Ireland, Greece has elected to cut some easy expenditure targets – capital investment and irregular payments and some social services. Ireland has gone slightly further by imposing a modest cut on wages and passing a gratuitous tax on pensions in the public sector. Of course, wage cuts were far from what was necessary, while the pensions tax was not even enough to cover the expected future increases in pensions liabilities that will arise due to, frankly Marcian in its surreality, practice of indexing future public sector pensions to wage rises in the sector.

And so, like Ireland, Greece has not been reckoning with the reality of its deficits. Unlike Ireland, however, it was not able so far to fool the markets, and it was unable to raise taxes. And unlike Ireland, Greece was a serial offender on the front of deficits (see charts) in recent years, during the boom. Note, this, of course, does not reflect the fact that Greek’s deficit accounts for their banks supports measures (negligible), while ours does not (massive).
And this means, everyone is still wondering – what is going to happen with Greece?

Last week several significant statements were made on the subject. First, Handelsblatt reported that "the EU has put the thumb-screws to the Greeks", noting that "under massive European pressure the Greek government has agreed to have its state finances cleaned up faster than initially planned". Greece has now pledged to reduce its budget deficit from around 12.7% in 2009 to under 3% of GDP by the end of 2012.

Handelsblatt information de facto denied by senior EU figures. In an interview with Il Sole 24 Ore, ECB Executive Board Member Juergen Stark said that the EU would not help bail out Greece, arguing: "Greece is in dire straits: not only has the deficit reached very high levels, but the country has also witnessed a serious loss of competitiveness [haven’t Ireland?]. Such problems are not due to the global crisis, since they are substantially homemade. …Rules... are unequivocal: being part of the Monetary Union doesn't guarantee any right to claim for financial support by other member states."

Of course, if pressure was applied on Greece [per Handelblatt], there must have been some sort of a threat. What can such a threat be?

Could the EU officials told Greek Government ‘Shape up or you are out of the Eurozone’? Nope – no such possibility even in theory.

Could they have told the Greeks ‘If you don’t resolve the problems with you deficit optics, we can’t give you a bailout’? Oh, yes, that could have happened. In fact, the threat of ‘no EU goodies, unless…’ threat is just what EU has used before on other countries –Switzerland and Norway (access to EU markets), and Ireland and Denmark (access to ‘influence’ within the EU).

So let us take it as a possibility, no mat6ter how remote, that the EU folks told the Greeks to get working on some sort of a face-saving formula to allow for their rescue by the EU/ECB.

Last Friday Wall Street Journal reported that the EU Commission spokeswoman outright denied such a rescue plan being worked on, saying she wasn't aware of any financial bailout packages being arranged. But then, in an interview to Die Welt Chief Economist of Deutsche Bank Thomas Mayer (a man whose statements are not to be taken lightly) said: "The situation [in Greece] is more serious than it has ever been since the introduction of the euro. The trouble in Greece plays a key role for future development... If the Greece situation is handled badly, the Euro-zone could break down, or suffer major inflation. Neither the European Central Bank nor the Commission nor any other EU body can force Greece to implement necessary reforms in exchange for help."

What does he mean ‘no body in the EU can force Greece’? He means here not the political infeasibility of the EU actually slapping on the conditions on Greece to implement austerity measures in exchange for funding. That can be done. What cannot be achieved is the enforcement of such conditions.

The problem is really simple and, thus, grave.
The EU can give Greece a loan – via ECB, say, for 10 years at 2-3% per annum, in the amount of 30% of its debt. That would be fine. It will not solve Greece’s problem, but it will alleviate pressures on deficit side, as country interest bill will fall substantially, allowing it some room to reduce structural side of deficit more gradually. But the EU will have to impose severe restrictions on Greek fiscal policy in order to discourage other potential would-be-defaulters today and in the future. They would have to require, as a condition of the loan, a constraint on Greek deficits going forward so severe that other PIGIES (note the renaming of the club – Austria is out, Estonia is in) don’t dare roll their massive deficits into debt into perpetuity in hope of a similar rescue.

That won’t work – the Greeks will take the money and will do nothing to adhere to the conditions, for there is no claw back in such a rescue.

Alternatively, the EU might commit ECB to finance existent Greek debt on an annual basis. This will allow some policing mechanism, in theory. If Greeks default on their deficit obligations, they get no interest repayment by ECB in that year. Sounds fine in theory but what happens if the Greeks for political reasons default on their side of the bargain?

If ECB enforces the agreement and stop repayment of interest, we are back to square one, where Greece is once again insolvent and its insolvency threatens the Euro existence. Who’s holding the trump card here? Why, of course – the Greeks. And, should the ECB play chicken with Greeks on that front, the cost of financing Greek bonds will rise stratospherically, and that will, of course, hit the ECB as the payee of their interest bill.

Thus, in effect, we are now in a Mexican standoff. The Greeks are dancing around the issue and promising to do something about it. The EU is brandishing threats and tough diplomacy. And the problem is still there.

Martin Wolf of Financial Times: "the crisis in the eurozone's periphery is not an accident: it is inherent in the system. …When the eurozone was created, a huge literature emerged on whether it was an optimal currency union. We know now it was not. We are about to find out whether this matters."

Indeed, we are about to find out… hold on to your socks, folks.
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