Greece in Peril Again

I spent some time traveling Eastern Europe before the Berlin Wall came down. I have many vivid memories of my trips, such as the very low-tech cars they all were so proud of. But I was also impressed with some things, like the breakfast on the overnight train through East Germany – a gourmet experience you could not even get in first-class intercontinental flights at that time. Or the beauty of Prag and Budapest, two of Europe’s most prominent, historic cities.

Perhaps the most painful experience was the sense of perennial economic stagnation. It was almost as though they all lived in a 1950s time capsule, from the enormous, inefficient and highly polluting industrial “combinates” to the design and quality of furniture and home electronics (to the extent it even existed).

Children grew up to the same standard of living that their parents experienced. And their children had nothing more optimistic to look forward to.

Fast forward a quarter century. The Great Recession is hurricaning its way through the European economy. Panic-driven tax increases, combined with spending cuts designed not to shrink government, but to preserve the welfare state, add insult to injury in country after country. The entire continent falls into the dungeon of economic stagnation.

Year after year go by without any discernible improvement on the horizon. All of a sudden, half-a-billion people have no reason to believe in a better tomorrow.

To me, and to anyone who had the opportunity to see first hand what life was like in Communist Europe, this is a painful deja-vu experience. One generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of unlimited opportunities to hundreds of millions of people from Saxony to Sakhalin, new skies have descended over the former Soviet empire. The part of it that remained under the Russian sphere now struggle with political instability and an economy that seems to be moving backwards.

The countries that chose the European Union for their future are not in much better shape. They are now part of a bigger economy that may have elevated them to a higher standard of living, but is now keeping them from further growth. If anything, people all over Europe now have to worry that their children and grandchildren will not be able to lead a more prosperous life than they have.

A new era – the same stagnation.

Industrial poverty, for short.

The insights of this long-term trend are slowly spreading. While 2014 has been the year of dashed hopes for a recovery, it looks like 2015 might be the year of painful insights. Those are coming little by little, slowly spreading from writer to writer, from analyst to analyst. A good example of someone who seems to be joining the ranks of the frustrated yet insightful is Peter Kohli, who writes for NASDAQ about Greece:

On November 13th, I wrote an article on this website on how to take advantage of a possible turnaround in the Greek economy, because of certain positive reports I had read. However, it seems that things have changed rather quickly and that the Presidential elections there have been moved up to next week, beginning on December 17th.

The lack of steady economic recovery is taking a political toll on the country. This is not surprising – the channels between politics and the economy are strong in Europe’s welfare states, where government is promising to cater to almost every need people may have. During the fall from relative prosperity in 2007 to the dark, frustrating dungeons of economic depression in 2012, Greek voters expressed their very deeply felt dissatisfaction with their government by voting for two radical and fundamentally anti-democratic parties: Syriza with its Hugo Chavez-style bolivarian socialist platform, and Golden Dawn, the first openly Nazi party to take seats in a European parliament since the 1930s.

Earlier this year it looked like there might be a recovery under way in Greece. However, as more data came online, it quickly became clear that this was merely a transition from depression to stagnation, an insight that very likely has made its way into the hallways of Greek political power. Alas, the election concerns that Kohli writes about. Back to his article:

Ordinarily this would not be a problem, except that there are no candidates for the post yet. In Greece, the election of a president is done by the legislators, who need a supermajority – which they don’t have. If after three successive elections they fail to install a candidate, a general election will be called, and here is where the real problem lies. Currently, the far left anti-austerity party, Syriza, is way ahead in the polls and they are promising to basically roll back nearly all the plans to put the country back on the path of prosperity instituted by the current government.

Well, that path is not exactly a path. It is more of a picture on the wall. But that is a minor point here. Let’s listen to Kohli’s conclusion:

This sent shivers down the spines of many investors, causing the ATHEX Composite Index (GD) to plummet 12.78% on December 9th, another 1% the following day, and then down a further 7.35% the next. Subsequently, the only single-country Greece ETF (GREK), has been hit hard and is down a whopping 39.28% YTD. After making some significant positive steps, I thought the Greeks were on their way back, but this is another Greek tragedy in the making.

It is indeed. If the Greeks do elect Syriza, there is a not-insignificant risk of two major crises forming a perfect storm:

  • The attempt to roll back austerity will lead to the only thing worse than those policies, namely reckless tax hikes; an abandonment of EU-imposed austerity could also lead to a Greek euro exit, with currency free-fall and massive inflation as a result; the economy would be hurled back into depression; and
  • The Nazis in Golden Dawn will not tolerate a government they would consider to be downright Communist; with their penchant for “creative” extra-parliamentary politics, and their deep support among the armed forces and the police, this would pose a direct threat to Greek democracy.

Europe needs to choose between the welfare state and prosperity. Irrefutable evidence shows they cannot get both. The question is: what will it take for them to realize the terms of the choice? The Greek situation may be extreme, but it is extreme in quantity, not in quality. The architecture for a similar development is present in several other European countries: Spain, Portugal, France…