Monday, 26 January 2015

Charybdis and Scylla

Alone among the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain), Greece was running a massive structural deficit before the crisis. Ireland and Spain in particular were torpedoed by the financial crisis, despite running prudent fiscal surpluses in 2007, which was the only bubble-cooling option available to their governments in the absence of monetary levers. The Irish and Spanish were not partying on Germany's tick, but were instead trying to manage the structural flaws in the Euro. The Greeks on the other hand were using Germany's credit card to pay the settlement of their civil war.

Since the 2008 crisis, the Greek right has, inflicted enormous pain on the population, removing graft and non-jobs which had become a birthright for many, and tried to deal with the widespread tax-evasion (evasion probably isn't strong enough. Many Greeks simply ignored the need to pay much in the way of taxes). Tax rises (for that is what making people accustomed to not paying cough up is) and cutting spending (for that is what dealing with graft and non-jobs is) represents a fundamental re-structuring of the Greek economy, which is now 25% smaller than it was before the crisis. This is beyond depression, and looks more like an economy emerging from a major war.

However, on its own terms, Greece's austerity has worked. The population now has a GDP per capita more appropriate to their actual productivity, and the country is running a primary (ie before debt service) surplus. More taxes are paid, and public sector jobs mostly exist and require their holders to turn up. This is an appropriate time to default as the smoke can clear before the country needs to tap the bond-markets again. The Greek right will take the opprobrium for the pain of the last few years, the left the plaudits for the recovery. Ain't it ever thus?

Germany, for its part, will have to wave goodbye to the money it lent Greece, and muse on the fact that it has the European empire the desire for which has burned in the Teutonic heart since the country was unified under the Hohenzollerns, and that means it must sometimes pay others' bills. Think of it as payback for living under the US security guarantee, which costs American taxpayers 4% of GDP, when Germany spends 1%. With power, comes responsibility.  

Greece should default. Germany should pay. Greece cannot default unilaterally, as they lack the resources to stand behind their banks, so they need Troika co-operation to do so. There's ultimately no need for Greece to leave the Euro, even though this would probably be better in the long-run for everyone; this would allow the Greeks to default, devalue and move on. However there is no political will for this amongst the players that matter (Greece and Germany), however much British anti-EU types yearn for it. Grexit won't happen. The default and devaluation would probably mean another 2 years of economic uncertainty, and Greek society may not be able to cope without descending into violence, and it's probably not worth that risk.

Syriza will not be able to deliver promised spending increases, though the austerity is probably going to be a lot less severe from now on. This is going to leave a lot of people very disappointed. The non-jobs, the state pensions paid for life to siblings, the fictional tax returns Greeks used to enjoy are not coming back. The only certainty is whatever happens, Alexis Tsipras is going to get a very sharp lesson in economic reality and power politics when he sits down in front of Frau Merkel.

Muddling through with a Grumpy German taxpayer picking up the bill for a Battered Greek economy, leaving the fundamental structural flaws of the Euro in place is probably the least bad solution all round.


Anonymous said...
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cuffleyburgers said...

Regrettably I suspect you are correct and the euro will limp on causing death and destruction for another bit.

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