The Greek referendum announced on November 1 by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou is a big gamble and politicians rightly don’t like to gamble. I, on the other hand, like the idea. It will force the Greek public to face up to the fact that the Germans and other northern Europeans are no longer willing to support their habit of living high on other peoples’ money.
Greece and many other governments, banks, and families have financed expenditures above their incomes with other people’s money for too long. The debt burden that has resulted has become too much to carry and lenders are no longer willing to keep on lending. Greece, to focus on today’s headline country, must reduce its debt, and reduce the government’s and the public’s borrowing (reduce spending and/or increase revenue) that created it and keeps it growing.
Some of Greece’s debt is owed to foreigner. Its borrowing from abroad to pay for its imports in excess of its exports can be reduced or eliminated by exporting more and/or importing less. To eliminate its trade imbalance Greek workers and firms must become more competitive with the rest of Europe and the world. Greek labor and produce markets need to be liberalized to become more productive. Retirement at 58 and generous vacations need to be brought into line with worker benefits in other European countries.
In announcing plans for the referendum, Papandreou stated that: “It is ‘time for the citizens to reply responsibly…. Do they want us to implement it or reject it? If the people do not want it, then it shall not be implemented. If yes, we shall proceed.’” 
But just what will the Greek voters be asked to decide? “’It’s difficult to see what the referendum is going to be about. Do we want to be saved or not? Is that the question?’ said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.“
The referendum might read: “Yes or No: ‘We agree to promptly adopt the market and fiscal reforms that we need to restore fiscal balance and external competitiveness in the future so that Greece will no longer need to borrow and spend other people’s money. As these adjustments will take time to restore competitiveness and eliminate the government’s need to borrow, the IMF and EU are prepared to lend the money needed to finance an orderly adjustment and banks around the world have agreed to write off half of their existing holdings of Greek government debt.’
A No vote would reduce that debt and any debt service payments to zero (full default), but as the government’s expenditures would still exceed its other spending commitments, the government would need to default on other domestic obligations as well (pensions, larger government salary and employment cuts, etc). Greece would be forced immediately to live fully within its much-reduced means and the suddenness of the government’s cuts would temporarily reduce Greece’s output and employment and government tax revenue even more causing potentially significant overshooting.
The beauty of a referendum is that people will need to face the truth and accept it or suffer the consequences of rejecting it. If they accept it and embrace and stand behind the reforms needed, the crisis for Greece will be over. External financing will still be needed as now planned to minimize the loss of output and revenue from the temporary adjustments needed.
The danger of a referendum is that the people will misunderstand the consequences and say no or will throw a childish tantrum and say no. The consequences of a No vote cannot be fully predicted. When faced with the larger cuts and disruptions full default would cause, civil society could explode with unforeseen results. Furthermore, the losses by banks and (largely Greek) pension funds holding Greek government debt would be larger causing larger losses to bank owners and creditors and probably French and other tax payers (the Greeks seemingly don’t pay taxes).
In this circumstance a possible, but not inevitable, further consequence would be Greece’s introduction of its own currency and a redenomination of Euro obligations of the government (at least) in the new currency at a depreciated exchange rate. If the government can force the re-pricing of wages and goods and services produced in Greece in the new depreciated currency, external competitiveness could be established (at least temporarily) with the stroke of a pen and the running of the currency printing presses. It is not obvious, however, that Greek workers would accept wage cuts via depreciation of the exchange rate of their new currency more readily than directly via nominal wage cuts.
To reintroduce its own currency, the Central Bank of Greece would offer to exchange Euros held by its banks and citizens for its own currency, though it is hard to imagine any of them taking up the offer. The real advantage to Greece of abandoning the Euro, and the source of the catastrophe that would almost surely follow, is that the government could now borrow the new currency from its own central bank. Rather than defaulting on many of its domestic obligations and/or implementing sharper than now planned cuts in government salaries and employment, the government could pay them with the new currency printed by and borrowed from the Central Bank of Greece. Printing money is not the same thing as growing food and building things, of course. So the introduction of its own currency would allow the Greek government to finance its continued deficits via inflation, i.e. reducing the real income and wealth of the private sector in order to transfer it to the government sector.
In Greece’s circumstances, monetary/inflationary financing of the government is a very slippery sloop that is likely to degenerate within a few years into hyperinflation as Zimbabwe recently demonstrated. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2009/05/29/hyperinflation-in-zimbabwe/
But what about Spain and Italy? What would be the consequences for their sovereign debt and for the banks and others that hold it of a No vote in Greece? Europe worries much more about this than anything that might happen in Greece. Restoring fiscal balance and improving external competitiveness will be much easier for Italy, for example, than it has been for Greece, if Italy only get on with it. A No vote in Greece would alarm market lenders but would also alarm the Italian government borrower and might well catalyze the reforms needed in Italy more quickly than a Yes vote. The fiscal and structural reforms that have already been discussed with Spain and Italy by the IMF and EU, if implemented, would remove market concerns about their ability to service their debts and thus restore interest rate risk premiums on such borrowing to German sovereign debt rates.
The uncertainty over the coming weeks of the Greek referendum outcome is unfortunate, but Spain and Italy need not wait, nor do they need EU money, to take decisive and credible actions to reassure market lenders.