Greece—how could they?

Today Greece is voting whether its government should accept the conditions required by the “Institutions” (EU/ECB/IMF) for the final installment of its second “bailout” package—a yes vote, or to reject them—a no vote. No one is quite sure what it all means. The program to which these conditions and the final installment of $8 billion applied expired on June 30 and those funds are no longer on offer. A yes vote would presumably indicate support by the majority of Greek voters for accepting the conditions (a modest primary budget surplus by the Greek government in coming years and structural reforms to improve the quality of government services and the productivity of Greece’s economy) likely to be offered for a third bailout program. The alternative—no more financial assistance from the Institutions—would force even greater “austerity” on the Greek government even after repudiating all of its external debt and thus saving the funds that it would otherwise needed to pay to service it. If Greek tax payers won’t cover the cost of the government’s promises and the market will no longer lend the shortfall, the government is likely to resort to augmenting its Euro tax income with IOU claims on Euros, i.e. introducing and inflating its own currency.

What were the Greek government and the Greek people thinking when they borrowed all that money in the first place, and it must be added, enjoyed spending it on an inflated, unsustainable lifestyle rather than investing it in a more productive future? But Greek politicians (and public) are hardly the only ones in the world to ignore future costs when making current promises they have no way to keep.

Take the United States, for example. For decades, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office has forecast ever-increasing deficits from American entitlement programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security) as expenditures increasingly outstripped revenue. This reflects both the growth in the generosity of these programs and demographics (increasing life expectancy and the baby boomer bulge in retired people relative to those working to pay for them—anyone who still thinks that the retired are receiving what they paid in while working just hasn’t been paying attention). I have written about this from time to time such as four years ago in: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2011/04/23/thinking-about-the-public-debt/

The future unsustainability of Social Security promises has been the subject of public debate for at least fifty years. The “future” retirement of the WWII baby boomers and their pension expectations has been known since the end of WWII. But one congress after the other has kicked the ball down the road. Seven years ago I outlined the issues and the relatively simple solutions to Social Security deficits in: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2008/08/28/saving-social-security/ Since then Medicare and Medicaid promises have only increased.

President Obama established the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (the so called Simpson-Bowles Commission) in early 2010 to develop bipartisan proposals for reducing future entitlement driven deficits. He ignored their modest proposals made in the Commission’s final report on December 1, 2010.

The Economist magazine last week reported that the assets available to cover U.S. public sector pensions covered only 75% of their obligations. In fact, the short fall is much greater than that because they are computed assuming a 7.6% return on their assets, which greatly overstates the actual experience of recent years. Private pensions are in much better shape. “But if public plans used the same discount rate as private ones, the deficit would increase to $3.9 trillion and the funding ratio fall to 45%.”

So what are our elected representatives thinking? “Deficits have eventually to be closed. That means lower benefits for the retired, bigger contributions from existing employees (a pay cut) or higher contributions from the employer—which means tax increases for state or city residents, or cuts to other services.

Why is it that our political representatives have such shorter policy horizons than does the public in general? The Economist provides a reasonable summary for the U.S..

“No wonder that no one is getting to grips with the problem. Unions do not like to draw attention to the deficits, for fear benefits will be cut. Politicians do not want to pick a fight with the unions, or increase taxes and annoy voters. Instead, states and cities tend to hope that rising markets will make the problem disappear.”

http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21656202-betting-equities-has-not-eliminated-americas-pension-deficit-wishful-thinking?frsc=dg%7Ca

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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1 Response to Greece—how could they?

  1. Sergio Pombo says:

    Dear Warren, I am very surprised of your take on the Greek situation. I cannot disagree more. In my view, the question MUST be reframed as: What did the Germans+French think (i.e., EU drivers) 30+ years ago when they allowed a medium-income country such as Greece to borrow beyond their economic capacity to become part of the EU? Did the EU ensure that these transfers were “invested” in the country’s infrastructure, industrial growth, or any productive assets? Probably the answer is no. But no questions were asked during these past years because most of these moneys came back to the largest EU economies in the form of non-productive purchases and other not productive expenditures. So every one has got what they deserve: the Greeks over spent and have got in trouble (I assume some of them profit from these situation) and the EU got some back in the form of purchases. Beyond this situation, the small role the EU or the IMF should play is that to be supportive of the political outcome. The people’s will must be respected. We will have to wait a few hours to see the outcome of the ballot which is about being out of the EU – – not about moneys owed to banks.

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