Greek Debt Out of Control Again

I recently expressed my deep concerns regarding the unstable political situation in Greece, concluding that the government’s attempt to ban or otherwise neutralize the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party is a very risky game. while morally the right thing to do, and politically probably necessary, the potential for a violent backlash is very high. One reason is that many Golden Dawn supporters appear to be supporting the party because they want Greece out of either the currency union or both the EU and the euro.

Their motive is not hard to understand: it has now been five years since Greece entered the economic crisis, and at least four of those years have to the average Greek been dominated by EU-imposed austerity. In package after package, the EU, the ECB and the IMF have dictated bone-crushing spending cuts and prosperity-destroying tax hikes. Since Greece is a welfare state, government is deeply involved in almost every aspect of people’s lives. When it goes on an austerity rampage the effects are by necessity both far-reaching and painful for Greek families.

Today, Greece stands with one foot in the EU and one foot in social and economic chaos. Political extremism is growing, both in the form of terrorizing socialist political violence and growing political intimidation from Golden Dawn. At the same time, unforgiving austerity policies, aimed at stabilizing government debt, have been a complete and utter failure, Greece’s government budget is suffering from chronic deficits, partly because one quarter of the tax base, a.k.a., GDP, has vanished during the austerity years, and partly because a much larger portion of the Greek population depends on the welfare state now than was the case before the crisis.

The question is what the EU-ECB-IMF troika is going to do next. Before we seek an answer to that, let’s take a look at the Greek debt trajectory. This figure shows the Greek government’s debt as percentage of GDP per quarter since 2008:

Greek Debt 1

The debt ratio rises steadily through 2011, then drops dramatically at the beginning of 2012. That is the point when the Greek government, aggressively “encouraged” by the Troika, wrote down its own debt.

When the write-down – effectively a partial default – was executed the Greek government owed 170 euros for every 100 euros of Greek GDP. That ratio was considered entirely unsustainable at the time, especially since the quarter-to-quarter increase in the ratio was at 3.3 percent. But the problem for the EU-ECB-IMF Troika is that the rise in the Greek debt ratio has not changed since the partial default – at least not for the better. Through the first quarter of this year the debt-to-GDP ratio has grown by 4.1 percent per quarter, putting the ratio at 160.3 for the first quarter of 2013.

Before the end of this year Greece will probably have a debt ratio that exceeds what it was at the partial-default point. Here are two scenarios:

Greek Debt 2

The blue line represents a scenario where the Greek debt ratio continues to grow as it has during 2012 and 2013 thus far. The red line extends with a growth trajectory based on the ratio growth rate from 2010 and 2011, namely 3.3 percent per quarter.

As we can see, the difference is negligible. And even if we disregard the exceptionally high debt ratio growth from the first quarter of 2012 (9.3 percent) we still end up with a post-default debt ratio growth of 2.5 percent per quarter. In other words, it is only a matter of time before Greece is back in the same situation as it was in 2011, only this time with an even more tense political situation, an even higher level of economic despair among the people and a youth unemployment rate at a completely destructive 60 percent.

So, back to the question: what is the Troika going to do next? Part of the answer lies in Angela Merkel’s decisive victory in last week’s German elections. Merkel wants to save Greece, keep the currency union intact and put a smiley face on every EU citizen. As far as she is concerned, the Troika should continue to help Greece.

At the same time, Greece’s self-proclaimed saviors are running out of options. The partial debt default was evidently a disaster that has, at best, bought the Greek government one year of breathable air. No one this side of a lunatic asylum would try another debt default. But austerity has also been utterly ineffective. The Greek economy simply refuses to produce the result that the designers of austerity expected.

What to do? Well, the only workable solution is so radical it will never win even a remotely serious consideration from the Troika – at least not its two European comrades, the EU and the ECB. That solution would involve Greece leaving the EU, reinstating its own national currency, and a dedicated program to reform away the welfare state.

It is almost a given that the EU won’t let any of that happen. But that brings us back to what options the Troika has left.

Well, what options do they have left?

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