Econ 101: When discussing Greece’s economic problems public officials and the press regularly toss out the need for “austerity” and/or “growth” as if they were clearly defined and understood concepts. I suspect that they mean quite different things to different people. While it is convenient to summarize complicated policies with single words, it can also stand in the way of understanding what is really meant. So what are the policies needed for Greece’s recovery and what should we call them?
Stocks and flows: For starters we need to distinguish the stock of Greek debt (the existing outstanding amount of previous, unrepaid borrowing) from its annual deficit. Greece’s debt reflects the past history of its annual deficits. Its current and prospective deficits foreshadow the future stock of debt. A full default on Greek debt—wiping it all off—would reduce Greece’s annual interest payments on its debt but beyond that would do nothing to reduce its annual deficit and the build up of its future stock of debt, which eventually would again become unsustainable. So forgiving (defaulting on) all existing Greek debt, by itself, will not resolve Greece’s problems.
Sticking with broad simplifications, Greece has two major economic problems. First, its government spends more than it can pay for without borrowing (the deficit — the flow of new debt). Moreover, like the U.S. and many other governments, it has made commitments to spend in the future (e.g. unfunded pension commitments) that are not yet reflected in its stock of debt or its annual deficits. This must change because it is not sustainable. Lenders will lose confidence in the government’s ability to service its debt and will stop lending. This calls for “austerity”, i.e. eliminating the annual deficit, by some combination of reducing expenditures and increasing tax revenue. I will return later to the distinction between structural and cyclical deficits.
Greece’s second major problem is its low productivity and uncompetitive prices. By themselves these would simply imply a lower standard of living for Greeks. But the average Greek has been spending more than his income by borrowing, giving the temporary illusion of a higher standard of living. To the extent that Greek spending is for foreign produced goods and services and these imports are not fully paid for with Greek exports, they must be paid for by borrowing. This artificial standard of living is obviously not sustainable.
Greece shares the same currency, the Euro, with 22 other European countries (including non members such as Monaco, Kosovo, and the Vatican). If Greeks borrow domestically to pay for imports, Euros will flow out of Greece, tightening liquidity. This should put downward pressure on wages and prices in Greece, which would help restore its competitiveness with the rest of the Euro zone. If Greeks borrow abroad, interest rates on such borrowing should eventually increase to cover the increased default risk. This will discourage Greek borrowing. Greece has reached this point.
Some argue that if Greece had its own currency it could reduce its real wages by devaluing its currency and thus restore external competitiveness. Cutting real wages in this way would be easier, they argue, than cutting nominal wages directly as Greece has just done for government employees. Experience in other countries suggest that devaluing its own currency, if it had one, would set off domestic price increases to offset the loss of real wages unless labor markets were made more competitive. A spiral of devaluations and inflation would likely ensue. Only when real wages can be reduced to competitive levels one way or another can Greece hope to grow out of its current problem. Thus the Greek government is undertaking structural adjustments to liberalize labor and product markets in order to make them more efficient and to make wages and prices more responsive to market conditions.
Some argue that the emphases in Greece should be put on growth. Given the debate in the U.S. between Keynesian and neo classical economist over whether growth requires “stimulus” to increase demand (the Keynesian view) or “structural adjustments” to make labor and product markets more efficient and to encourage investment (the neoclassical view), it is not completely obvious what the proponents of growth in Greece have in mind. Attempting to promote growth with government stimulus to demand is not in the cards, as that would require more government spending and/or lower taxes and thus even larger deficits that no one is willing to finance. The only way for Greece to enjoy a higher standard of living is to undertake structural reforms that will allow the economy to be more productive and its wages and prices to be more competitive with the rest of the world.
So Greece needs to eliminate its deficits (actually run surpluses to reduce its outstanding debt) and liberalize its labor and product markets to establish balance in its external trade. All serious students of the Greek situation agree with this. The policy debate is complicated, however, by the interaction between growth and deficits and the speed with which an economy adjusts to changes.
If the Greek economy grows more rapidly it helps its debt problem in several ways. First, a growing economy generates more tax revenue from the same tax system. This reduces the deficit. It also tends to reduce government expenditures linked to safety net expenditure (e.g. unemployment insurance). This also reduces the deficit. In addition, the capacity of an economy to sustain and service debt is linked to its size. Thus economists look at the ratio of debt to GDP. A more rapidly growing economy tends to reduce the debt/GDP ratio by increasing the denominator.
While Greece must eliminate its deficits, the initial impact of expenditure cuts and higher taxes is to temporarily reduce income and tax revenue. Greece is experiencing this now. Its expenditure cuts have not reduced its deficit as much as expected because the temporary slow down in economic activity as displaced government employees (for example) look for new jobs, has been larger than expected thus reducing tax revenue by more than expected. A reduction in income has the same but opposite effect on the deficit as does an increase in income. This phenomenon is called automatic stabilization. Both Keynesian and neoclassical economists favor allowing such cyclical swings in government deficits and surpluses. But in the long run the government’s structural deficit (its full employment deficit) should be zero or at least smaller than the economy’s long run average growth rate. In Greece’s case it should be in surplus for a number of years to reduce its existing stock of debt.
The positive impact on competitiveness and income of liberalizing labor, services and product markets will also take time to develop. Balancing Greece’s fiscal budget now, before structural reforms have had time to work, would require much larger fiscal corrections (spending cuts and tax increases) than would be needed for long run balance.
This background should help understand and evaluate Greece’s options. Without external financial help (as is now provided by the EU, IMF and ECB), Greece could not adjust its fiscal deficits enough in the short-term to avoid the need to continue borrowing temporarily. Under these circumstances market lenders are likely to charge such a high risk premium to buy Greek sovereign debt to cover the prospects of default that deficits would become worse rather than better. Greece would default (with or without leaving the Euro). If it had defaulted in December 2011, it would have saved 16.3 billion Euros in interest payments on outstanding debt out of total government expenditures of €76.8 billion, but would have had to cut expenditures instantly an additional €6.3 billion to keep it within its tax revenues of €54.2 billion, over a 10% cut in non-interest expenditures instantaneously. This is austerity on steroids. The Greek economy had already stopped growing in 2008 and shrank by 3.3%, 3.5% and 5.0% in 2009, 10, and 11 respectively. The shock of default would surely depress the real economy further than the 2.0% decline currently forecast for 2012, reducing tax revenue further and requiring even larger cuts in spending. This does not take account of the impact of a Greek default on its banks, which hold a significant amount of Greek sovereign debt, and which the government would no longer be in a position to support. Default is no panacea, and this has not taken into account the possible negative effects in Spain and Italy, to name but two other European countries.
The approach taken by the IMF and EU is to agree with Greece on targets for both deficit reduction (austerity) and structural reforms (growth) that aim to restore full balance by 2021 and to finance the declining deficits in the interim at modest interest rates so that Greece does not need to borrow from the market. The program requires the “voluntary” write down of private sector holdings of Greek sovereign debt by about 70%. Greece would reduce its deficit from almost 10% in 2011 to less than 5% in 2012 (a primary surplus – i.e. not including interest on its debt—of 0.2%, raising to a primary surplus of 2.4% in 2013 and 5.0% in 2014). This “austerity” is being supplemented by significant structural reforms. The program is a balance between the pace of austerity and growth. Slower implementation of austerity requires a longer period of IMF/EU financing but with potentially more rapid growth.
Government employment is being reduced by 22% between 2010 and 2015 (150,000 employees). Future pension commitments have been reduced. Inflation has fallen below the Euro area average. However, external competitiveness has improved as the result of wage reductions in Greece rather than improved productivity, i.e. living standards have fallen. In general, labor market and business sector reforms have lagged. Changes in labor laws to allow more flexible wage bargaining and to ease the cost of lay offs are showing positive results. A number of services and professions have been liberalized to subject them to greater competition (cruise ships, highway freight, tourist coaches, regulated professions). The cost of starting new businesses has been reduced (“The new law reduces the number of steps (from 11 to 1), days (from 38 to 1), and cost (by more than 50 percent) required to start a business.”). Nonetheless the slow pace of such reforms is the major weakness of the program. Public acceptance of its changed circumstances and how best to deal with them has not be easy or smooth either.
It is noteworthy that the Greeks work more hours on average than any other European county (2,017 hours per year compared to 1,408 hours a year for Germans). German’s enjoy a higher standard of living because they produce more each hour they work. Greece needs to liberalize its markets to become more productive. Lowering wages will make Greek output more competitive beyond its borders but will not raise the standard of living for Greek workers.
The euro group has stated in its communiqué, “We reiterate our commitment to provide adequate support to Greece during the life of the program and beyond until it has regained market access provided that Greece fully complies with the requirements and objectives of the adjustment program.” The proviso is standard but also reflects Greece’s poor record of honesty and implementation.
IMF financial support is parceled out in quarterly installments contingent on Greece meeting the conditions agreed to for each quarter. This combines the carrot of financial assistance with the stick of close monitoring of Greece’s compliance with the reforms needed for long run success. There are no good options for Greece, but the current agreement between Greece and the IMF/EU seems to hold out the best hope for potential success. It balances austerity and growth. It will not work without public acceptance. Government promises to its public are being and must be broken. The Government needs to convincingly explain that these promises cannot be kept and that a brighter future requires the reforms that have been promised to the IMF/EU/ECB and the increased productivity and growth they should make possible.
Iceland and Ireland are well on their way to recovery from their debt disasters. If Spain and Italy can get and stay ahead of the adjustment and reform curve, and they have new governments committed to doing so, Europe should pull through and be stronger for the experience. But the next few years will be difficult.
 Mario Blejer and Guillermo Ortiz, “Latin Lessons”, The Economist February 18, 2012, page 94.