On Greece, Martin Wolf is bleak…
Yet [despite the bailout] it is hard to believe that Greece can avoid debt restructuring. First, assume, for the moment, that all goes to plan. Assume, too, that Greece’s average interest on long-term debt turns out to be as low as 5 per cent. The country must then run a primary surplus of 4.5 per cent of GDP, with revenue equal to 7.5 per cent of GDP devoted to interest payments. Will the Greek public bear that burden year after weary year? Second, even the IMF’s new forecasts look optimistic to me. Given the huge fiscal retrenchment now planned and the absence of exchange rate or monetary policy offsets, Greece is likely to find itself in a prolonged slump.
Would structural reform do the trick? Not unless it delivers a huge fall in nominal unit labour costs, since Greece will need a prolonged surge in net exports to offset the fiscal tightening. The alternative would be a huge expansion in the financial deficit of the Greek private sector. That seems inconceivable. Moreover, if nominal wages did fall, the debt burden would become worse than forecast.
…Felix Salmon depressing…
Even if Greece were running a zero primary deficit (and I’d love to know if it’s ever managed that particular feat), a default without devaluation would still keep the country mired in its current uncompetitive state. If you’re going to go through the massive pain of a default, you might as well get the upside of devaluation at the same time, and exit the euro.
At that point, the only question is: do you default and devalue now, or do you wait a couple of years? Germany and France might well want to wait, in the hope that their banks will be better able to cope with such a thing in a couple of years’ time. But from a Greek perspective, if the pain is coming, best to go through it now and bring forward the growth rebound, rather than push off the devaluation stimulus to an indefinite point in the future.
…while most of Simon Johnson’s readers have now slit their wrists:
The Europeans will do nothing this week or for the foreseeable future. They have not planned for these events, they never gamed this scenario, and their decision-making structures are incapable of updating quickly enough. The incompetence at the level of top European institutions is profound and complete; do not let anyone fool you otherwise.
What we need is a new approach, at the G20 level; this can definitely include debt restructuring, but it has to be done in a systematic fashion (and even then there will be a considerable degree of total mess). Such a change in framework for dealing with these issues will not get broad support until after further chaos in Europe, but it now needs to be put into place.
The Europeans will not lift a constructive finger. The leading emerging markets are too busy battening down the hatches (and accumulating ever more massive chests of reserves). And the White House still seems determined to sleep through this crisis. Expect nothing.
What are the chances of the Euro emerging from this unscathed? Increasingly slim, it seems – surely one or more countries are going to find it almost impossible to stay inside the currency union. While the UK gazes at its navel, phase 2 of the global financial crisis has firmly taken hold.
We now have an inter-related banking and sovereign debt crisis; no procedures for an orderly bankruptcy of countries (having ignored the lessons of the East Asian financial crisis); and no legal way to allow the destitute to exit the Euro.
What a mess.
If you’re in any doubt of the seriousness of the Greek sovereign debt crisis, read Mohamed El-Erian in the FT. A banking crisis has fuelled a sovereign debt crisis, which could in turn spark another banking crisis (with the whole caboodle, as I have argued, part of a sustained episode of financial instability that stretches back to the 1990s):
A number of things have to happen very fast over the next few days to have some chance of salvaging the situation. At the very minimum, the government in Greece must come up with a credible multi-year adjustment plan that, critically, has the support of Greek society; EU members must come up with sizeable funds that can be quickly released and which are underpinned by the relevant approval of national parliaments; and the IMF must secure sufficient assurances from Greece (in the form of clear policy actions) and the EU (in the form of unambiguous financing assurances) to lead and co-ordinate the process.
This is a daunting challenge. The numbers involved are large and getting larger; the socio-political stakes are high and getting higher; and the official sector has yet to prove itself effective at crisis management.
Meanwhile, the disorderly market moves of recent days will place even greater pressure on the balance sheets of Greek banks and their counterparties in Europe and elsewhere. The already material risks of disorderly bank deposit outflows and capital flights are increasing. The bottom line is simple yet consequential: the Greek debt crisis has morphed into something that is potentially more sinister for Europe and the global economy. What started out as a public finance issue is quickly turning into a banking problem too; and, what started out as a Greek issue has become a full-blown crisis for Europe.
Election or no election, the UK simply cannot afford to sit on the sidelines while this crisis runs out of the control. Alistair Darling needs to stop giving speeches to activists in Scotland and get back to work at the Treasury.
Lord Adonis stopped campaigning as soon as Eyjafjallajökull erupted. Darling must do the same as the UK faces contagion from Eurozone turmoil.
A few weeks ago, I questioned German wage restraint, pointing out that other Eurozone countries would prefer Germany to allow salaries to rise, thus stimulating domestic demand, and helping address Europe’s economic imbalances.
French finance minister, Christian Lagarde recently made the same point:
Clearly Germany has done an awfully good job in the last 10 years or so, improving competitiveness, putting very high pressure on its labour costs. When you look at unit labour costs to Germany, they have done a tremendous job in that respect.
[But] I’m not sure it is a sustainable model for the long term and for the whole of the group. Clearly we need better convergence.
In the FT, Otmar Issing – who did his best to ensure the European Central Bank was run on Bundesbank-approved lines – reacts to the suggestion with characteristic restraint and good humour:
This idea, presented as a panacea for Europe’s problems, is so economically erroneous and politically dangerous that it would hardly deserve being taken seriously – were it not for the risk that it might actually prevail…
At a time when the EU has launched a new initiative to make the continent’s economies more competitive, after the failure of the “Lisbon agenda”, an approach that deliberately tried to reduce the competitiveness of one of the most successful exporters in world markets would look like a bad joke.
I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then. Issing, who has been lobbying hard against a Greek bailout, reflects a worrying trend in German opinion. According to this line of thinking, other Eurozone countries should buckle down, cut wages and public spending, and do what their richer and more prudent masters in
Berlin Brussels tell them to.
And if this medicine is too bitter, then they should bugger off, re-adopt the drachma, lire or peseta, and spend the next hundred years or so paying back the Euro-denominated debt they have incurred while in the single currency.
It’s a depressing vision. And, for Europe, it looks like it’s stagnation ahead.