Greece: What should its creditors do now?

Following Sunday’s NO vote in Greece, what ever that might have meant, it is tempting to tell Greece to get lost and be done with them. Aside from the unseemly lack of compassion for our suffering fellow man, the further collapse of the Greek economy and society that would likely follow Grexit (the Greek exit from the Euro and introduction of its own currency) would open unknown and potentially very dangerous risks to the rest of Europe from its southern periphery. However, any new deal between Greece and its creditors should be mutually beneficial for Greece and the EU in the long run and achievable and practical in the short run. What are the key elements needed for such an agreement?

Greece’s second bailout program with its creditors (the EU, ECB, and IMF) expired June 30 after a four-month extension without disbursing the final installment of around $8 billion dollars. It cannot be resurrected. Thus any further discussions between Greece and its creditors will concern a third bailout program.

Greece’s recently replaced and unmissed Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis’, stock speech said basically that Greece does not need or want more loans because it is bankrupt rather than illiquid. In short, it wants debt forgiveness. In fact, many European officials have acknowledged the possible need to write off (reduce the present value one way or another of) existing Greek debt but insisted that any such consideration be put off for a new program. Discussion of a new program has now arrived.

The foundation of any financial assistance program with the IMF is its assessment that the borrowing country can repay the loan. This assessment is contained in the IMF’s “Debt Sustainability Analysis.” This analysis imbeds the agreed (or assumed) level of government spending and estimated tax and other government revenue and of the level of economic activity (GDP growth) upon which it depends in a forecasting model of the deficit and debt/GDP ratios expected from implementation of the agreed policies. The IMF was badly embarrassed by its acceptance of overly optimistic assumptions about income growth government revenue in its first bailout program in 2010 with the EU and ECB. Under political pressure from the EU and ECB, these assumptions allowed the IMF to conclude that Greece’s debt would be sustainable thus avoiding the need for some debt write off favored by the IMF but opposed by Germany and France, whose banks held large amounts of that debt. The second bailout program included a write off of about 70% of the privately held Greek debt. However, this came too late and the adjustment in the Greek government’s annual deficits required by the first program proved too severe causing a much larger and longer lasting contraction in the Greek economy than expected and assumed in the IMF Debt Sustainability Analysis at that time.

On June 26, 2015 (i.e. prior to Greece’s default on its $1.7 billion payment to the IMF and to the July 5 referendum) the IMF released a draft Debt Sustainability Analysis based on the information available at that time. It concluded that “If the program had been implemented as assumed, no further debt relief would have been needed under the agreed November 2012 framework…. At the last review in May 2014, Greece’s public debt was assessed to be getting back on a path toward sustainability, though it remained highly vulnerable to shocks. By late summer 2014, with interest rates having declined further, it appeared that no further debt relief would have been needed under the November 2012 framework, if the program were to have been implemented as agreed. But significant changes in policies since then—not least, lower primary surpluses and a weak reform effort that will weigh on growth and privatization—are leading to substantial new financing needs. Coming on top of the very high existing debt, these new financing needs render the debt dynamics unsustainable…. But if the package of reforms under consideration is weakened further—in particular, through a further lowering of primary surplus targets and even weaker structural reforms—haircuts on debt will become necessary.”

In short, the Greek economy was finally beginning to recover by the end of 2014 but the reversals by the new Syriza government of some of the policies contributing to that gain and the loss of market confidence in the muddled and amateurish behavior of the new government reversed the recovery and further increased Greek deficits. In addition, increasing capital flight has been financed by short-term emergency liquidity loans from the ECB, thus adding to Greece’s over all indebtedness. Capital flight per se should not reduce banks’ capital, as they lose the same amount of assets and liabilities, as long as they are able to liquidate sufficient assets by selling them or by using them as collateral for loans from the ECB or other banks. These loans and the process of transferring Euros abroad are described in the paper I presented in Athens May 19 at the Emergency Economic Summit for Greece: http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/32/.

Under these circumstances it would be desirable (i.e. consistent with and/or required by a European desire to keep Greece in the Euro Zone while returning it to fiscal balance and sustainability over a reasonable, if somewhat longer, period of time) for Greece’s creditors to forgive some of the debt held by the ECB and IMF and to lower the structural fiscal surpluses initially required in a follow on program for the next few years (this latter element had already been offered by the creditors before the referendum). In short, by reducing Greece’s debt service payments and lowering its primary fiscal surplus, it would endure less “austerity.” Former Finance Minister Varoufakis actually proposed a sensible risk sharing form of refinanced Greek debt indexed to the economy’s economic performance. Creditors would do better than expected on their concessional loans if the economy performed better than forecast and would suffer losses if it did worse. This would give both sides a financial incentive to get the pace and balance of fiscal adjustment right (growth maximizing). While Europe’s political leaders sort out the details, the ECB should continue to provide liquidity credit to the extent that, and as long as, Greek banks can provide realistically valued collateral.

The purpose of these adjustments by the creditors should not and must not be to throw more good money after bad allowing a continuation of decades of corruption, rent seeking and government inefficiency. Long before it joined the Euro Zone, Greece suffered poor government services by a bureaucracy overstaffed by friends and supporters of the government in power at the time. Not receiving expected government services, many Greeks have decided not to pay for what they are not getting. Hence tax evasion and a large underground economy added to Greece’s deficits. Quoting from Bret Stephens’ July 6 column: “Greeks retire earlier and live longer than most of their eurozone peers, which means they spend close to 18% of GDP on public pensions, compared with about 7% in Ireland and 5% in the U.S…. As of 2010, Greek labor costs were 25% higher than in Germany. [As a result of internal devaluation since then, this is no longer true.] A liter of milk in Greece costs 30% more than elsewhere in Europe, thanks to regulations that allow it to remain on the shelf for no more than a week. Pharmaceuticals are also more expensive, thanks to the cartelization of the economy…. Greece wanted to be prosperous without being competitive. It wanted to run a five-star welfare state with a two-star economy. It wanted modernity without efficiency or transparency, and wealth without work. It wanted control over its own destiny—while someone else picked up the check.”

Changing this behavior by Greek governments and the Greek public will not be easy if it is possible at all. The still very strong support by the Greek public for keeping the Euro suggests a strong awareness of the need for some restraints and discipline of its government’s spending. But is the desire for a truly better deal (from their own government) strong enough to overcome the resistance of the entrenched and favored interests, who would lose from liberalizing the economy and cleaning up the patronage mess and tax non compliance, etc.? The best hope is the formation of a unity government that strongly endorses a well balance program of gradual further fiscal adjustment and the continuation of the structural reforms so badly needed. Close monitoring by the creditors of Greek compliance with its promises and the phasing of financial assistance tied to such performance benchmarks, is the IMF’s standard approach to enforcing compliance with the measures the government agrees to. There are risks in agreeing to a third program and risks in not doing so and thus Grexit.

Grexit, even with total default on all external debt, will surely force more austerity on Greece than would any program now contemplated, even before taking account of the almost certain collapse of all of Greece’s already “temporarily” closed banks. The Greek government will hardly be in a position to bailout its banks suffering a surge of non-performing loans. Depositor bail-ins will need to cut all the way into “insured” deposits. The pain will be largely felt only in Greece, and unfortunately mostly by the ordinary Greek citizen.

Greece, Debt, and Parenting

If you are a parent, you may have experienced something like the following:

Son number 1 and his children live in a much nicer home than you did at his age. It is the biggest house he could qualify to buy and you put up the down payment to assist him in his purchase. He worked hard as an auto mechanic earning a decent income. His wage was increased modestly each year as his productivity gradually increased with experience, though barely keeping up with inflation. He and his wife were loving parents with three wonderful children and enjoyed their family time together spending what they earned on their children. However, they spent his income as he received it and borrowed the maximum possible to buy a nice second hand family van. When the car needed more than the normal repairs, he had no savings and borrowed the money from you. The occasional family illnesses were paid for by additional loans from you as well and rather than paying off their mortgage and other debts over time these debts grew larger. When his children reached college age they took jobs that did not require college educations as no money had been saved for college.

Son number 2 was also an auto mechanic but ran his own repair shop. His wife and two children lived in a more modest home with lower mortgage payments and they consumed his earnings carefully and modestly in order to save for emergencies, the children’s college fund, and his retirement, and to invest in equipment that would make his repair shop more productive. For a number of years they enjoyed a lower standard of living than did son number 1, but gradually paid down their mortgage without incurring additional debt. More importantly, his income rose more rapidly than did his brother’s because of his investments in tools and equipment. Within 24 years his income was twice his brothers as a result of its growing 3% per year faster.

With the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 and having his hours of work reduced because of the slowing economy, son number 1 was forced to sell his house in a short sale arranged with the mortgage holder and you wrote off what he owned you. His family was forced to cut many of their expenditures because no one would lend them the money needed to continue living beyond their means. They were forced to cut their consumption even further in order to have some savings when the inevitable health and mechanical emergencies occurred because you decided that your earlier financial help had only perpetuated their shortsighted behavior and refused to lend him more. They complained about the fall in their standard of living as they were now forced to consume within their means. Your son number 1’s family was now poorer. Or more accurately, their standard of living matched reality and became sustainable. Their earlier, higher standard of living was an unsustainable illusion.

Needless to say, son number 2’s future was brighter. His family took advantage of the fall in housing prices by 2008 to buy a larger home, keeping their original one for its rental income. His two daughters went to and graduated from college. His higher standard of living was real and sustainable (i.e. he paid for his higher consumption fully out of his higher earnings).

If you rename son number 1 “Greece”, and son number 2 “Germany” you can begin to understand the difference between the situation of each economy and the difference between competitiveness (exports that match and pay for imports) and productivity (the level of wages and income). For a while Greece enjoyed an artificial and unsustainable standard of living. It needed to “adjust” to reality, i.e. to bring its expenditure in line with its income both internally (the government and each household better matching their incomes and expenditures) and externally (imports matched by –i.e., paid for by—exports) and thus to recognize that it is really poorer than it had pretended. This is what is meant by being competitive. To raise its standard of living it must become more productive by creating a more business friendly environment, reducing its blotted government bureaucracy, and liberalizing labor and product markets. For more details see my earlier articles on Greece: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2010/05/30/greeces-debt-crisis-simplified/ and https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/saving-greece-austerity-andor-growth/