Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Economics 24/02/2010: Greeks, Germany and the euro

There is a fine mess going on in Athens. And it is both
  • detrimental to the Euro; and
  • predictable (see here).
Exactly a month ago to date, I have predicted that Greece is going into a Mexican standoff with EU. We now arrived at exactly this eventuality (see this link to a good summary of Greek Government views - hat tip to Patrick).

Back on January 24th, I wrote:

"The EU can give Greece a loan – via ECB... 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. 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. ...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."

There are three possible outcomes from the standoff:
  • Greece backs down and Germany accepts an apology - which pushes us back to square one, with Greeks still in the need of funds and EU still without a plan;
  • Greece goes for the broke and remains within the euro, implying a rapid and deep (ca 30%) devaluation of the euro; or
  • Greece is forced out of the euro (there is, of course, no mechanism for such an action).
The first option is a delay in the inevitable; the last one is an impossible dream for fiscally conservative member states. Which leaves us only with the second option.

And incidentally, the only reason German bunds are still at reasonably low yields is because Germany is linked to Greece (and other PIIGS) only via common currency. Imagine what yields the German bunds might be at if a full political union was in place?

This, of course, flies in the face of all those who preach political federation as EU's answer to structural problem of hinging desperately diverse economies to common currency.

So hold on to your pockets - after the Exchequer raided through them via higher taxes; Greek default will prob their depths through devaluation. And then you'll still be on the hook for our banks claiming their share in an exercise of rebuilding their margins.

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