“It is disappointing that the country cannot liberate itself from the desire to subsidise borrowing to finance house purchases,” complains Martin Wolf in his review of George Osborne’s autumn statement. “Why should the government subsidise people to speculate on property prices?”
Wolf fails to understand the logic of the new policy. It’s not the first time buyer who is really being subsidised by mortgages backed by the British government. They are simply entering an overpriced market, and taking on debt that will strangle some of them in what Wolf expects to be a ‘lost decade’.
Instead, it is those who are exiting the market who will benefit if the Chancellor’s largesse succeeds in propping up prices – that’s the elderly who are dying and passing on the proceeds from a house sale to their children (who tend to be in late middle age), or the baby boomers themselves as they downsize in preparation for retirement.
Any government policy that keeps house prices artificially high benefits the old not the young. Of course, banks will do quite nicely from government-backed 95% mortgages as well – they can relax lending standards and we all know where that leads.
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.