Greece keeps pushing the currency union envelope. Mr. Tsipras, the socialist prime minister, is driven by his ideological convictions and therefore plays a different game than the leaders in Brussels with whom he is negotiating to keep his country afloat. The problem for the European leadership is that it seems incapable of understanding what role Tsipras’s ideology plays for his actions – Tsipras wants full independence for Greece so he can build his version of the socialist dreamland that now-defunct Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez created.
Rational arguments such as “property rights no longer exist in Venezuela” or “they have 60 percent inflation” and “crime is rampant and there is a shortage of almost every daily necessity” do not work on ideologues like Tsipras. That is the very problem with them. Therefore, you cannot reason with them as though they were swayed by the same type of “sensible” arguments that you are. But more importantly: so long as the EU leadership does not understand that politicians like Tsipras are ideologically opposed to everything that the EU stands for, they will not be able to have a rational conversation. There will be constant discords, where the EU leaders try to set goals that will help Greece stay inside the euro zone – and ultimately the EU – while Tsipras and others like him (think euro skeptics in Italy and Spain) will try to create circumstances that allow them to get what they want, namely out of the euro zone (and eventually the EU).
The biggest danger with this discord is that once the euro zone starts breaking apart, the retreat from the common currency will be disorderly. There is no doubt that the Bundesbank in Germany has a contingency plan for that disorderly dissolution, but it is far from certain that their plan will work. There are so many uncertain factors in this game that an even reasonably confident prediction is out of the question.
That said, there are some fixed points that can be put in the context of macroeconomic reasoning. That in turn should at least provide some insight into the best and worst case scenarios.
Before we get there, though, an update on the Greek situation, as reported by the EU Observer:
The stand-off between Greece and its lenders deepened over the weekend ahead of a meeting of euro finance ministers on Friday (24 April), with both sides exchanging barbs over the risk of a Greek default and its consequences for the eurozone. On Friday, Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem said both parties should avoid “a game of chicken to see who can stick it out longer. We have a joint interest to reach an agreement quickly”.
An agreement about what? If Greece secedes from the euro it can, at least theoretically, run away from its bailout-related deals. In practice, the EU would still want to enforce loan contract, but it is much more difficult with a country that has a currency of its own – a currency that in all likelihood will be depreciating rapidly.
As for the IMF, Greece would have to deal with them separately, but it could do so much more so on its own terms once outside of the euro zone.
In fairness, though, it looks like the full extent of the Greek situation is beginning to dawn on at least some EU leaders. The EU Observer again:
EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF) leaders warned that Greece had to make quick progress to finalise a list of reforms that would enable it to receive a €7.2 billion loan. But they hinted that a Greek default could be managed by the eurozone. “More work, I say much more work is needed now. And it’s urgent,” said European Central Bank (ECB) chief Mario Draghi in Washington, where he was attending the IMF’s Spring meeting. “We are better equipped than we were in 2012, 2011, and 2010,” he added, referring to the years when fears of a eurozone break-up were at a high. “Having said that, we are certainly entering into uncharted waters if the crisis were to precipitate, and it is very premature to make any speculation about it,” Draghi also said.
So what would happen if Greece seceded from the euro? Well, the EU Observer article brushes on that subject:
Greek finance minister Yanis Varaoufakis, for his part, warned that his country’s exit would cause major problems for the rest of the region. “Some claim that the rest of Europe has been ring-fenced from Greece and that the ECB has tools at its disposal to amputate Greece, if need be, cauterize the wound and allow the rest of the eurozone to carry on,” he said on Spain’s La Sexta channel “Once the idea enters peoples’ minds that monetary union is not forever, speculation begins … who’s next? That question is the solvent of any monetary union. Sooner or later it’s going to start raising interest rates, political tensions, capital flight.”
This is a key statement. Some would interpret it as Greek leverage in negotiations with Brussels. However, the correct way to read it is as a blunt warning of what is to come: sooner or later Greece will leave the currency union, and it will do so like the men who escaped Alcatraz in 1962. Once someone has done what everyone thought was impossible, then just as Mr. Varaoufakis says, the only question on everyone’s mind will be: who’s next?
British Member of the European Parliament for the UKIP, Mr. Nigel Farage, made a great point recently when appearing on BBC (at about 2:25 into the video): the initial effect of a Greek currency secession is going to be a boost in growth as the currency depreciates. This growth spurt will inspire other struggling euro-zone states to consider a return to their national currency. Once the secession movement gets off ground, it is uncertain how many states will actually reintroduce their national currency, but it would be reasonable to expect a first round of secession to sweep from Athens to Lisbon.
The short-term financial turmoil aside, the most likely effect will be a southern European currency war. The four countries that have historically had weak currencies will find themselves returning to that position, only with an even deeper macroeconomic ditch to climb out of. The only moving part of their economies is, actually, exports, which will get a boost from a rapid currency depreciation. At the same time, that depreciation will be a major conduit for imported inflation, which in turn will eat its way into the economy a bit after the exports boom has gained momentum. The more the currency depreciates, the stronger the imported-inflation effect will be.
Inflation will have major consequences for the government budget. Depending on what type of inflation indexation is built into the welfare state’s entitlement programs, the cost of government spending will rise more or less with inflation. While inflation can also be beneficial to the revenue side of the state budget, it negatively influences the purchasing power of households and generally (but not always) depresses business profitability. As a result, domestic economic activity slows down, causing the tax base to stagnate.
And this is where the major test comes for currency secessionists: how will they handle their budget problems? With weak currencies they will have a hard time selling their treasury bonds on the international market; they can load up their banks – a likely scenario in Greece where a Syriza government could even go as far as to nationalize banks – but as the Great Recession demonstrated, leaning on banks for funding a government deficit is a particularly bad idea. When banks are overloaded with bad government debt in the midst of a macroeconomic crisis, then suddenly it is 2009 again.
Very briefly, then: once the euro zone starts falling apart the first ones to leave will face very difficult challenges. That is not to say that the remaining euro zone countries will have a better life – it is very likely that the euro zone itself won’t survive the 2017 French presidential election – but once the Southern Rim has left the euro zone the remaining countries will have a somewhat easier time following an orderly retreat plan. In fact, it would not be surprising if Germany, Austria and the BeNeLux countries remained in a “core” currency union – a Gross-Deutsch Mark, if you will. That currency could actually become a stabilizing point for a post-euro EU.
Still, even with an anchor currency in the heart of the EU, an implosion of the euro will have major negative effects for the European economy. What will those effects look like? That is a subject for another article.
Greece just made its IMF payment due last week, indicating that the socialist government still does not think it has strong enough support among the Greek general public to secede from the euro zone. It is unlikely that any other arguments will keep them from reintroducing the drachma; high inflation – an inevitable consequence of a drachma resurrection – does not discourage socialists in other countries, such as Venezuela, from pursuing reckless domestic policies. Syriza, whose leader Tsipras is a dyed-in-the-wool Chavista socialist, wants to be the first to bring the warped ideology of Hugo Chavez to Europe, and he is not going to let his plans be spoiled by petty things like currency turbulence or 50-percent inflation like they have in Venezuela.
However, if the population generally is against a currency secession, he runs the risk of a parliamentary challenge long before the next election. His majority is very slim, and depends critically on the participation of a small nationalist party that could be peeled away by a determined opposition. In other words, Tsipras is walking a thin line to get Greece to where he wants her to be.
One of the problems with this thin line is that it does not allow for any sound economic policies. Nothing that could actually revive the chronically depressed Greek economy is permitted in under the Tsipras government’s low ideological ceiling. Therefore, the following report from Euractiv should come as no surprise:
Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said on Thursday (9 April) that the government was restarting its privatisation programme and was committed to avoiding going into a primary deficit again. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ government has been opposed to some asset sales but has promised not to cancel completed privatisations, and only review some tenders as part of the terms of a four-month extension of its February bailout program me. “We are restarting the privatisation process as a programme making rational use of existing public assets,” said Varoufakis, speaking in Paris.
This is how they are going to balance the budget: by means of one-time sales of assets. It is like selling the living room couch to pay your mortgage. What are you going to sell next month?
The previous Greek government did the same thing, obviously to no avail. In fairness, though, the Greek government has very few options. Despite some weak signs of a fledgling recovery earlier this winter, there is no clear rebound in the Greek economy.
Private consumption, measured as four-quarter moving averages and adjusted for inflation, has stabilized a bit under €30bn per quarter. This is a substantial loss from the €37bn per quarter recorded right before the Great Recession, and it means that the Greeks have basically been sent back to 2001 in terms of standard of living.
Since private consumption is the driving force of the economy, its decline and stagnation since 2008 is the most vivid expression of the deep suffering that the Greek people has had to live through. That said, they have also asked for more by electing a socialist for prime minister whose comprehension of economics is weak, to say the least.
Tsipras, like all socialists, sees government as the indispensable economic agent; everything else is either debatable or out of the question.
With all that in mind, there is actually a flickering light in the tunnel. When Greece’s private consumption is measured per employed person, it actually looks like there is a small rebound in there:
With consumption again measured by quarter, with four-quarter moving average adjusted for inflation, and then divided by employee, it looks like the Greeks are able to work their way up a little bit in terms of purchasing power. In the first quarter of 2011 per-employee consumption was €8,004; for the last quarter on record, Q3 of 2014 it was €8,178.
This does not look like much of an increase, but the underlying trend is weakly positive. This means that while only 54 percent of the Greek population 20-64 actually have a job, those who do are slowly beginning to establish a “new normal” of consumption. It is a normal that is characterized by stagnation, with almost no outlook toward reasonable gains in the standard of living – it is in essence life under industrial poverty – but at the very least this little rebound is an indicator that things are not going to get worse.
Ceteris Paribus, of course… And as one of my favorite economics professors from back in college loved to point out: ceteris is not always paribus. Things change. And not always for the better. Especially when you have a prime minister dedicated to the mission of bringing Chavista socialism to Europe. Come Scylla or Charybdis.
When the Chavista socialists in Syriza won the Greek election many forecasters raised the concern that Greece might leave the euro. However, most of them quickly subsided and joined the ranks of the non-confrontation opinion. The prevailing view over the past couple of months seems to have been that the Greek government will eventually cave in, stick to agreed austerity programs and honor its debt payments to the IMF.
I have refused to join the choir of consensus. On February 9 I explained (emphasis added):
There have been many attempts at predicting which way Greece is going to go under the new socialist government. Most of the voices heard thus far seem to agree that Prime Minister Tsipras will not seek a confrontational course against the EU. That is, however, a mistake. This is a man who considers now-defunct Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez a political hero. Tsipras is also a former communist (though being a former communist and at the same time a fan of now-defunct Hugo Chavez is a matter of political semantics) whose training in politics and – to the extent it exists – in economics is fully governed by those ideological roots. It is only logical that he continues to raise the volume vs. Brussels.
This ideological foundation for the Greek attitude toward the EU and the IMF has continued to elude international analysts. One reason is that most of those analysts have a business background or are otherwise trained in strictly quantitative methods such as econometrics; another reason is that most analysts are American, and Americans in general have a shallow – even non-existent – understanding of what role political ideologies play in European politics.
Related to this, it is important to keep in mind that Syriza is governing with coalition support from a small nationalist party whose feelings for the EU are perhaps even more unfriendly than those in Syriza.
Since my February 9 prediction I have steadfastly said that while the Greek future in the euro zone is more uncertain than most economic and political events, it is more likely that they leave the euro than that they stay in.
Today, The Telegraph reports:
Greece is drawing up drastic plans to nationalise the country’s banking system and introduce a parallel currency to pay bills unless the eurozone takes steps to defuse the simmering crisis and soften its demands. Sources close to the ruling Syriza party said the government is determined to keep public services running and pay pensions as funds run critically low. It may be forced to take the unprecedented step of missing a payment to the International Monetary Fund next week.
This is not the place to re-hash all the reasons why Greece is in this situation in the first place. Suffice it to mention one point, though, namely that ever since the end of the military government in 1974 democratically elected governments have emphasized welfare-state spending over a sound, working economy. Slowly but inevitably this has eaten away at the private sector. Eventually, the Greek economy collapsed into a deep recession, government tried to fix its enormous budget problems with austerity patches, the result was an even deeper recession – and here we are.
In other words, the origin of this fiscal crisis is in the welfare state. Now Greece has a government that by ideological conviction stands by, and wants to restore and even grow, that same welfare state. The only way they can do this – they believe – is if they leave the euro zone. While most Greeks have been against a currency secession, the Syriza government has now manipulated the circumstances to exactly where they need them to be, namely where they look like they care more about the Greek people while the evil global capitalist IMF does not.
Prime Minister Tsipras will be considered a national hero for as long as the drachma has some value vs. the euro. Which will probably be 3-6 months. Then the global market will have deemed the drachma worth little more than Monopoly money and Tsipras will have to resort to the kind of currency trickery they use in Venezuela (his vision of Greece’s future). Of course, with such reckless exchange-rate manipulation and money printing comes 40-50 percent inflation.
That is literally where Greece could be in two years, maybe less, if they leave the euro zone.
The Telegraph again:
Greece no longer has enough money to pay the IMF €458m on April 9 and also to cover payments for salaries and social security on April 14, unless the eurozone agrees to disburse the next tranche of its interim bail-out deal in time. “We are a Left-wing government. If we have to choose between a default to the IMF or a default to our own people, it is a no-brainer,” said a senior official.
Again, the circumstances that fit the Syriza agenda for euro secession. And, as the Telegraph emphasizes, one has to look at this from a political, ideological perspective more than strict macroeconomics:
The view in Athens is that the EU creditor powers have yet to grasp that the political landscape has changed dramatically since the election of Syriza in January and that they will have to make real concessions if they wish to prevent a disastrous rupture of monetary union, an outcome they have ruled out repeatedly as unthinkable. “They want to put us through the ritual of humiliation and force us into sequestration. They are trying to put us in a position where we either have to default to our own people or sign up to a deal that is politically toxic for us. If that is their objective, they will have to do it without us,” [a Greek government] source said. … Syriza sources say are they fully aware that a tough line with creditors risks setting off an unstoppable chain-reaction. They insist that they are willing to contemplate the worst rather than abandon their electoral pledges to the Greek people.
Prior to the election of the French socialists to both the presidency and the parliamentary majority in 2012 there was not a single government within the euro zone that even grumbled about the tough austerity measures imposed by the EU-ECB-IMF troika. President Hollande wanted to part with some of the measures that the troika thought would bring France into compliance with the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact. (This is the EU’s constitutional budget balancing measure.)
France is still not in compliance with the Pact, and the alternative policies that the socialists imposed on the French people have not made any notable difference in terms of growth and job creation. But their balking at compliance with EU-imposed austerity measures sparked a movement of dissent through much of the European left. The idea of simply telling the troika that “we care more about our people than about you” eventually brought Syriza to power in Greece – and will now bring Greece out of the euro zone.
In fact, as the Telegraph explains, the Greek government has already drawn up the plans for it:
An emergency fall-back plan is already in the works. “We will shut down the banks and nationalise them, and then issue IOUs if we have to, and we all know what this means. What we will not do is become a protectorate of the EU,” said one source. It is well understood in Athens such action is tantamount to a return to the drachma, even though Syriza would rather reach an amicable accord within EMU.
The effects for the Greek economy would be devastating. For starters, their Treasury bonds, which are denominated in euros, would become even more toxic than they already are. The only way they could continue to honor their payments on those bonds is if they would peg the drachma to the euro. But that would hold up if and only if they locked the borders and prevented people from taking their money out of Greece.
Which is why they propose a nationalization of the banks. Thereby they can lock in people’s money and force them to keep it in the country. But such draconian measures would of course be tantamount to declaring war on the global financial markets. Not that a Chavista socialist government would care, but it would force them to take counter-measures to prevent a complete meltdown of the currency within the first few months.
One such measure is a double-currency system, which is in operation both in China and in Venezuela. That shields the “real” currency from massive depreciation, but it also creates liquidity problems in the economy. The Chinese government escaped those problems thanks to many years of massive trade surpluses that – by means of currency sterilization – flooded he economy with liquidity and cheap credit. (They are now paying the price for that exchange-rate policy.) The Venezuelan government has simply taken to the monetary printing presses to do away with their liquidity problems. One of the many effects is 40-50 percent inflation.
A Greek secession will have serious consequences for the euro zone. Keep a close eye on Spain this year, then France in 2016 and 2017. More than likely the euro zone will be dead by the end of 2018.
It looks like Greek Prime Minister Tsipras is finally getting the country to where he was heading all the time: out of the euro. After winning an extension in February of current bailout conditions, the Syriza-led government has made practically no progress toward accommodating the demands from its creditors. On the contrary, it is increasingly obvious that Tsipras is trying to manipulate the circumstances to where he has no choice but to declare a Greek euro exit.
Yesterday the Greek blog MacroPolis explained:
The Greek government faces a dire financial situation in the coming weeks, especially as lenders are unlikely to relent on the conditions of last month’s loan extension. In fact, Tsipras’ insistence on of pushing for a “political deal” is going nowhere: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who he will meet in Berlin next Monday, 23 March, is unlikely to deviate from her preference for technical, rule-based solutions. Therefore, the risk of an internal default due to the inability to pay salaries and pensions is not negligible.
Tsipras knows that he has no leverage. If he wanted to keep Greece in the euro zone he would never have run the negotiations to this point. But he has, which strongly suggests that I was correct when I wrote on March 1:
Prime minister Tsipras wants Greece to secede from the euro zone so he can pursue his Chavista socialist agenda on his own. He cannot do that without a national currency, but so long as a large majority of Greeks want to keep the euro he cannot outright declare currency independence. He needs to build momentum and create the right kind of political circumstances. This extension of status quo gives him four more months to do so.
It is very likely that the Germans have called Syriza’s game. As a counter-strategy they refuse to concede anything more, but are instead doubling down on their demands and conditions for a bailout. Reports the Telegraph:
Greece’s hard-Left government has been told to redouble its reform efforts in a bid to begin rebuilding the trust of its eurozone partners after a marathon four-hour meeting of European leaders in the early hours of Friday morning. With the clock ticking on securing the country’s future in the eurozone, Athens was urged to speed up its commitment to raising revenues and overhauling its economy by Germany’s chancellor.
Apparently, Chancellor Merkel has decided to play the chicken race that Alex Tsipras has been begging for ever since he was elected. According to the EU Observer, Merkel’s allies in the EU leadership have de facto made Tsipras an ultimatum:
Give us a list of reforms, and you might get the money you need, Alexis Tsipras was told at a three-hour meeting with select EU leaders on Thursday (19 March). The Greek prime minister met with German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande. The heads of the EU Council and European Commission, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker were also present, as well as European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi and Eurogroup chairman Jeroen Dijsselbloem. Tsipras was reminded that his government must stick to the Eurogroup’s previous, 20 February agreement. He was also told his partners are waiting for precise figures about the state of Greece’s finances and for a set of detailed reform proposals.
Merkel would not push Prime Minister Tsipras for the sake of saving him. She could not care less for a political half-wit from a broke-and-beaten Mediterranean outlier. No, her motives are at a much higher level. She has realized that the days are numbered for the common currency project. Greece is tugging away at its corner of the European currency; a party similar to Syriza is rapidly rising in Spanish politics, opening the possibility for Spain to eventually follow Greece toward currency secession; and then there is the constantly present threat of a President Le Pen in France whose first executive order would be to revive the franc.
On top of this Chancellor Merkel is looking at the exceptional depreciation of the euro over the past year. While this is good for exports, it has had no visible effect on domestic economic activity in the EU, especially not in the euro zone. The ECB has emptied out all its conventional monetary-policy measures and even resorted to unconventional stupidities like negative interest rates on bank overnight deposits. Yet none of this has helped get the European economy out of its state of stagnation.
Whichever way the chancellor looks, the euro is a lost cause. The remaining question then is: who is going to write the script for the end of the common currency? Is it going to be the rogues in Athens (and Madrid) or is it going to be the Germans? By being at least as principled as Tsipras, Angela Merkel is taking charge of the euro dissolution process. Her goal is to guarantee an orderly return to national currencies – and when that return will happen.
Prime Minister Tsipras can look wobbly and indecisive next to Merkel, but nobody should make the mistake of believing that the Syriza-led government eventually wants to stay in the euro. As Euractiv reports, the secessionist attitudes that characterize Syriza are not limited to economic issues:
The Syriza-led government will be against an Energy Union that undermines Greece’s national interests, including in its relations with Russia, said Greek energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, who also ruled out any privatisation schemes for the country’s energy sector.
So there you have it. The journey toward “Grexit” continues. The only question is who will blink first – i.e., who is going to be the first to give up on the Greek euro membership? Will Merkel say “I’m firing you” or will Tsipras say “You can’t fire me, I quit”?
The fiscal stress on the euro-zone continues. Last week the EU non-solved the Greek problem:
Eurozone finance ministers on Tuesday (24 February) approved a list of reforms submitted by Athens and cleared the path for national parliaments to endorse a four-month extension of the Greek bailout, which otherwise would have run out on 28 February. “We call on the Greek authorities to further develop and broaden the list of reform measures, based on the current arrangement, in close coordination with the institutions,” the Eurogroup of finance ministers said in a press statement.
Don’t expect that to happen. Prime minister Tsipras wants Greece to secede from the euro zone so he can pursue his Chavista socialist agenda on his own. He cannot do that without a national currency, but so long as a large majority of Greeks want to keep the euro he cannot outright declare currency independence. He needs to build momentum and create the right kind of political circumstances. This extension of status quo gives him four more months to do so.
The question is what those circumstances will look like. The EU Observer article provides a hint:
[The] IMF, while saying it can support the conclusion that the reforms plan is “sufficiently comprehensive”, criticised the plan for lacking details particularly in key areas. “We note in particular that there are neither clear commitments to design and implement the envisaged comprehensive pension and VAT policy reforms, nor unequivocal undertakings to continue already-agreed policies for opening up closed sectors, for administrative reforms, for privatisation, and for labour market reforms,” IMF chief Christine Lagarde wrote in a letter to Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem.
These are reforms that the new socialist government in Athens would not want to carry out. It is a good guess that they will be punting on the reforms to provoke the IMF into making an ultimatum. At that point Tsipras can tell the Greek people that he will not subject them to any more IMF-imposed austerity, and the only way he can protect them is to re-introduce the drakhma.
Will this happen in four months? It remains to be seen. But there is no way that Tsipras is going to tow the line dictated by the IMF, the ECB and the EU. His very rise to political stardom is driven by unrelenting opposition to such fiscal subordination.
In other words, the Greek crisis is far from over and will continue to be a sore spot on the euro-zone map. If it were the only one, the euro zone and the entire EU political project might still have a future. That is not the case, however:
The European Commission on Wednesday (25 February) gave France another two years to bring its budget within EU rules – the third extension in a row – saying that sanctions represent a “failure”. France has until 2017, having already missed a 2015 deadline, to reduce its budget from the projected 4.1 percent of GDP this year to below 3 percent. “Sanctions are always a failure,” said economic affairs commissioner Pierre Moscovici adding that “if we can convince and encourage, it is better”.
This is a non-solution similar to the Greek one, though for somewhat different reasons. In the Greek case the EU does not want to provoke an imminent Greek currency secession; in France they do not want to give anti-EU politicians more gasoline to pour on the European crisis fire.
What the European leadership does not seem to realize, or at least will not admit, is that the euro will lose either way. By pushing Greece too hard the EU Commission will give Tsipras his excuse to reintroduce the drakhma; by treating France with silk gloves the Commission hollows out the enforcement backbone of the currency union. Known as the Stability and Growth Pact – the balanced-budget requirement built into the EU constitution – it was supposed to hold sanctions as a sword over member states to minimize budget deficits. Now the EU Commission has effectively neutered the Pact and created an ad-hoc environment where austerity is forced upon some countries but not others.
With no sanctions there are no incentives for the states to comply. On the contrary: compliance means austerity, which comes with a big political price tag for the member states; non-compliance, on the other hand, comes with no price tag whatsoever.
To be blunt, the silk-glove treatment of France has put the final nail in the coffin of the Stability and Growth Pact. Aside from its consequences for the inherent strength of the euro, this silk glove stands in sharp contrast to the iron fist that the Commission presented Greece with already in 2010. The EU Observer again:
Valdis Dombrovskis, a commission vice-president dealing with euro issues, admitted that France is the “most complicated” case discussed on Wednesday. Paris is in theory in line for a fine for persistent breaching of the euro rules. However the politics of outright punishing a founding member of the EU, a large member state, and a country where the economically populist far-right is riding high in the polls, has always made it unlikely that the commission would go down this route.
This is of course a major mistake. The only mitigating circumstance is that France is not yet in a situation where it requires loans from the EU-ECB-IMF troika to pay its bills. But if the socialist government generally continues with its current entitlement-friendly, tax-to-the-max policies it will not see its budget problems go away.
Down the road there is at least a theoretical possibility that France could be sucked into the bailout hole. More likely, though, is that Marine Le Pen will be elected president in 2017 and pull France out of the euro. That will, so to speak, solve the problem for both parties.
I have said this before and I will maintain it ad nauseam: so long as Europe’s political leaders persist in their fervent defense of the welfare state, they will continue to drive their continent deeper and deeper into the macroeconomic quagmire called industrial poverty.
The answer to the question whether or not Greece will stay in the euro will probably be given this week. New socialist prime minister Tsipras is not giving the EU what it wants, jeopardizing his country’s future inside the currency union:
Talks between Greece and eurozone finance ministers broke down on Monday with an ultimatum that Athens by Friday should ask for an extension of the current bailout programme which runs out next week. Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said he would have been willing to sign off on a proposal made by the EU commission, which was more accommodating to Greek demands, but that the Eurogroup offer – to extend the bailout programme by six months – was unacceptable. The battle is about more than just semantics. EU officials say Greece cannot cherrypick only the money-part of a bailout and ignore the structural measures that have to be implemented to get the cash. “If they ask for an extension, the question is, do they really mean it. If it’s a loans extension only, with no commitments on reforms, there is an over 50 percent chance the Eurogroup will say no,” one EU official said. Failure to agree by Friday would leave very little time for national parliaments in four countries – notably Germany – to approve the bailout extension. It would mean Greece would run out of money and be pushed towards a euro-exit. … As for the prospect of letting Greece face bankruptcy to really understand what’s at stake, an EU official said “there is no willingness, but there is readiness to do it”.
The mere fact that there is now official talk about a possible Greek exit from the euro is a clear sign of how serious the situation is. It is also an indication that the EU, the ECB and the governments of the big EU member states have a contingency plan in place, should Greece leave the euro.
My bet is that Tsipras is gambling: he wants out of the euro, but with a majority of Greeks against a reintroduction of the drachma he cannot go at it straightforwardly. He has to create a situation where his country is given “no choice” but to leave. This is why he is negotiating with the EU in a way that he knows is antithetical to a productive solution.
The reason why Tsipras wants out is simple: he is a Chavista socialist and wants to follow in the footsteps of now-defunct Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. That means socialism in one country. (A slight rephrasing of the somewhat tarnished term “national socialism”.) In order to create a Venezuelan-style island of reckless socialism in Europe, Tsipras needs to get out of the euro zone.
Should he succeed, it is likely that other countries will follow his example, though for different ideological reasons. However, there is more at stake in the Greek crisis than just the future of the euro zone. Tsipras is riding a new wave of radical socialism, a wave that began moving through Europe at the very depth of the Great Recession. Statist austerity was falsely perceived as an attempt by “big capitalism” to dismantle the welfare state. It was not – quite the contrary: statist austerity was a way for friends of big government to preserve as much as possible of the welfare state.
However, socialists have never allowed facts to get in the way of their agenda. And they certainly won’t let facts and good analysis get in the way of their rising momentum. What started mildly with a socialist victory in the French elections in 2012 has now borne Tsipras to power in Greece and is carrying complete political newcomers into the center stage of Spanish politics. But this new and very troublesome wave of socialism is not stopping at member-state capitals. It is reaching into the hallways of EU politics as well. As an example, consider these words on the Euractiv opinion page by Maria João Rodrigues MEP, Vice-Chair of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, and spokesperson on economic and social policies:
The Greek people have told us in January’s elections that they no longer accept their fate as it has been decided by the European Union. For those who know the state of economic and social devastation Greece has reached, this is only a confirmation of a survival instinct common to any people. The Greek issue has become a European issue, and we are all feeling its effects.
This is a frontal attack on EU-imposed austerity, but it is also a thinly veiled threat: unless Europe moves left, the left will move Europe.
Back to Rodrigues:
European integration can only have a future if European decisions are accepted as legitimated by the various peoples who constitute Europe. Decisions at European level require compromises, as they have their origins in a wide variety of interests. But these compromises must be perceived as mutual and globally advantageous for all Member States involved, despite the commitments and efforts they entail. The key question now is whether it will be possible to forge a new compromise, enabling not only to give hope to the Greek people, but also to improve certain rules of today’s European Union and its Economic and Monetary Union.
This should not be misinterpreted as a call for return of power to the member states. The reason why is revealed next:
We need a European Union capable of taking more democratic decisions and an Economic and Monetary Union which generates economic, social and political convergence, not ever-widening divergence. If Europe is unable to forge this compromise, and if the rope between lenders and borrowers stretches further, the risks are multiple: financial pressures for Greece to leave the euro; economic and social risks of continued stagnation or recession, high unemployment and poverty in many other countries; and, above all, political risks, namely further strengthening of anti-European or Eurosceptic parties in their aspiration to lead national governments, worsening Europe’s fragmentation.
The fine print in this seemingly generic message is: more entitlement spending to reduce income differences – called “economic and social convergence” in modern Eurocratic lingo – and a central bank the policies of which are tuned to be a support function for fiscal expansion. The hint of this is in the words “If the rope between lenders and borrowers stretches further”: member states should be allowed to spend on entitlements to reduce income differences, and if this means deficit-spending, the ECB should step in and monetize the deficits.
Rodrigues offers yet another example of the same argument:
[Many of] Greece’s problems were aggravated by the behaviour of the European Union: Firstly, it let Greece exposed to speculative market pressures in 2010, which exacerbated its debt burden. Secondly, when the EU finally managed to build the necessary financial stabilisation mechanisms, it imposed on Greece a programme focused on the reduction of the budget deficit in such an abrupt way that the country was pushed into an economic and social disaster. Moreover, the austerity measures resulted in a further increase of Greece’s debt compared to its GDP.
It is apparently easy for the left to look away from such obvious facts as the long Greek tradition of welfare-state spending. But that goes with the leftist territory, so it should not surprise anyone. More important is the fact that we once again have an example of how socialists use failed statist austerity to advocate for even more of what originally caused the crisis, namely the big entitlement state. They want to turn the EU and the ECB into instruments for deficit-spending ad infinitum to expand the welfare state at their discretion.
To further drive home the point that what matters is the welfare state, Rodrigues moves on to her analysis of Greece:
What Greece needs now is a joint plan for reform and reconstruction, agreed with the European institutions. This plan should replace the Troika programme, while incorporating some of its useful elements. Crucially, it should foresee a relatively low primary surplus and eased conditions of financial assistance from other eurozone countries, in order to provide at least some fiscal room for manoeuvre for the country. In return, the plan should set out strategic reforms to improve the functioning of the Greek economy and the public sector, including tax collection, education, employment and SMEs services as well as ensuring a sustainable and universal social protection system.
There is no such thing as a “sustainable and universal social protection system”. When Europe’s new generation of socialist leaders get their hands on the right policy instruments they will turn all government-spending faucets wide open. Deficits will be monetized and imbalances toward the rest of the world handled by artificial exchange-rate measures (most likely of the kind used by now-defunct Hugo Chavez).
If this new wave of socialism will define Europe’s future, then the continent is in very serious trouble.
A short-term measure of the strength of the momentum will come later this week when we will know whether or not Greece will remain in the currency union. Beyond that, things are too uncertain to predict at this moment.
After a delay with its national accounts publications, Eurostat has now caught up. Fourth-quarter numbers are beginning to sip out, with the following press release last Friday:
Seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 0.3% in the euro area (EA18) and by 0.4% in the EU28 during the fourth quarter of 2014, compared with the previous quarter, according to flash estimates published by Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union. In the third quarter of 2014, GDP grew by 0.2% in the euro area and by 0.3% in the EU28.
More important, though, is the annual growth rate:
Compared with the same quarter of the previous year, seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 0.9% in the euro area and by 1.3% in the EU28 in the fourth quarter of 2014, after +0.8% and +1.3% respectively in the previous quarter. During the fourth quarter of 2014, GDP in the United States increased by … 2.5% (after +2.7% in the previous quarter).
The U.S. economy is still way ahead of Europe, and there are no signs of this parity shrinking. For the three countries where Eurostat has reported individual 2014 GDP numbers, inflation-adjusted growth rates are far from impressive:
- Germany: 1.61 percent;
- France: 0.38 percent;
- Greece: 0.87 percent.
For the two largest economies in the euro zone, Germany and France, the combined growth rate is 1.08 percent. That is a minuscule uptick over the second and third quarter annual growth rates of 0.99 and 1.02 percent, respectively. Furthermore, while the combined growth rate for Germany and France is slowly increasing, the individual growth rates for the two countries are going in different directions. Again, annual inflation-adjusted growth rates reported by quarter:
Frustrating comments are already pouring out over the internet. EUbusiness.co. says that the numbers are “too weak to convincingly signal a full-blown recovery”. They are absolutely right. Analysts quoted by EUbusiness.com attribute the slight uptick in growth to falling oil prices and a weaker euro. Both of these are external factors, which means that Europe still has no core growth power. It is also important to remember that the weak euro partly is attributable to concerns about the future of the currency. With Greece basically in open defiance of payment obligations and EU-imposed austerity programs, and with countries like Portugal and Italy likely to join Greece should Athens decide to secede from the currency union, there are complicated, long-term reasons for a weak euro.
One analyst suggests to EUbusiness.com that the fact that the ECB has basically eliminated interest rates is adding so much to the picture that it is time to talk about a European recovery:
The ECB’s version of so-called quantitative easing has already decreased government borrowing prices across most of the currency bloc and weakened the euro, which should help to boost exports in Europe. “For the first time in two years, we can say that the region is going for solid growth,” Anna Maria Grimaldi, an economist at Intesa Sanpaolo SpA in Milan, told Bloomberg News. “The euro area is supported by the very strong tailwinds of the fall of the euro, the fall of oil prices and the fall of interest rates sparked by ECB QE.”
However, as I explained last week, the zeroing of interest rates has at best led to a temporary boost in business investments. There are no signs of a permanent recovery.
I will repeat this ad nauseam: unlike the American economy, the European economy has no reason to recover.
There have been many attempts at predicting which way Greece is going to go under the new socialist government. Most of the voices heard thus far seem to agree that Prime Minister Tsipras will not seek a confrontational course against the EU. That is, however, a mistake. This is a man who considers now-defunct Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez a political hero. Tsipras is also a former communist (though being a former communist and at the same time a fan of now-defunct Hugo Chavez is a matter of political semantics) whose training in politics and – to the extent it exists – in economics is fully governed by those ideological roots.
It is only logical that he continues to raise the volume vs. Brussels. Alas, from Euractiv:
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras laid out plans on Sunday (8 February) to dismantle Greece’s “cruel” austerity programme, ruling out any extension of its international bailout and setting himself on a collision course with his European partners at a summit in Brussels later this week. In his first major speech to parliament since storming to power last month, Tsipras rattled off a list of moves to reverse reforms imposed by European and International Monetary Fund lenders; from reinstating pension bonuses and cancelling a property tax to ending mass layoffs and raising the mininum wage back to pre-crisis levels.
There are two reasons to take this man seriously. The first has to do with his admiration of now-defunct Hugo Chavez. Fans of so called Bolivarian socialism – the ideological niche Chavez carved out for himself and his project to destroy Venezuela – truly believe in the idea of socialism in one country. They are not ideologically or intellectually opposed to “going at it alone”: on the contrary, it would be entirely in line with their thinking to try to repeat in Greece what now-defunct Hugo Chavez did in Venezuela. This means, as I have explained several times before, that Tsipras and his party, Syriza, would be more than happy to try to turn Greece into a European Venezuela.
In addition to terrible economic consequences, this would mean cutting some key economic and political ties between Greece and the EU. A termination of EU-imposed austerity and a reintroduction of the drachma are high on that list.
The second reason to take Tsipras seriously will be revealed in just a moment. First, back to Euractiv:
Showing little intent to heed warnings from EU partners to stick to commitments in the €240 billion bailout, Tsipras said he intended to fully respect campaign pledges to heal the “wounds” of the austerity that was a condition of the money. Greece would achieve balanced budgets but would no longer produce unrealistic primary budget surpluses, he said, a reference to requirements to be in the black excluding debt repayments. “The bailout failed,” the 40-year-old leader told parliament to applause. “We want to make clear in every direction what we are not negotiating. We are not negotiating our national sovereignty.” In a symbolic move that appeared to take direct aim at Greece’s biggest creditor, Tsipras finished off his speech with a pledge to seek World War II reparations from Germany.
In effect, that means writing off German loans. But wait – there is more. Let’s continue with the Euractiv article and listen to the political arrogance of Prime Minister Tsipras:
Tsipras ruled out an extending the bailout beyond 28 February when it is due to end. But he said he believed a deal with European partners could be struck on a so-called “bridge” agreement within the next 15 days to keep Greece afloat. “The new government is not justified in asking for an extension,” he said. “Because it cannot ask for an extension of mistakes.” Athens – which is shut out of bond markets and will struggle to finance itself without more aid quickly – plans to service its debt, Tsipras said. “The Greek people gave a strong and clear mandate to immediately end austerity and change policies,” he said. “Therefore the bailout was first cancelled by its very own failure and its destructive results.”
This is quite a high-pitch rhetoric to come from a man whose country cannot function without foreign aid. But herein lies the second reason why it is important to take Tsipras seriously and assume that he means every word he says. From EU Business:
A Greek exit from the euro would see the euro collapse like a house of cards, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis warned in comments that triggered a spat with Italy. “Greece’s exit from the euro is not something that is part of our plans, simply because we believe it is like building a house of cards. If you take out the Greek card, the others will collapse,” Varoufakis said in an interview with Italian public broadcaster RAI that was aired on Sunday.
Here is the strategy behind the Greek finance minister’s rant. As PM Tsipras tells the EU, the ECB and the IMF that austerity is over, he flags up that Greece will now begin its long walk out on the left flank. he is now at a point where he can start implementing his long-held dream of a communist, or at least Bolivarian socialist, paradise in Greece. The EU-ECB-IMF troika has very limited resources to put up against the Greeks unilaterally ending austerity – their most formidable weapon would be to kick Greece out of the euro.
Theoretically, the Greek government would not mind that, but they want it to happen on their terms. They want to tell Europe that “you can’t kick us out, because we quit”. That is a risky strategy – they can only push Brussels and Berlin that far – so to increase the likelihood that Greece holds the aces here, finance minister Varoufakis reminds the European leadership what chaos would erupt if they kicked Greece out.
This is a very high-stakes game, for both parties. The first skirmish will be over Greece’s participation in the currency union, with my bets being on Tsipras unilaterally pulling Greece out. That may make him look strong, but in the end Greece will lose. It is their economy and their people who will be subjected to a European version of the Bolivarian socialist paradise that now-defunct Hugo Chavez created.
Today it is time to review in more detail the latest national accounts data from Eurostat. A disaggregation of the spending side of GDP reinforces my long-standing statement: the European economy is in a state of long-term stagnation.
To the numbers. We begin with private consumption, which is the driving force of all economic activity. It is not only a national-accounts category, but an indicator of how free and prosperous private citizens are to satisfy their own needs on their own terms. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for economic freedom that private consumption is the dominant absorption category.
Once consumer spending starts ticking up solidly, we can safely say there is a recovery under way. However, little is happening on the consumption front: over the past eight quarters (ending with Q3 2014) the private-consumption growth rate for the EU has been 0.3 percent per year. While the increase was stronger in 2014 than in 2013, only half of the EU member states experienced a growth in consumer spending of two percent or more in the last year. The three largest euro-zone countries, Germany, France and Italy, were all at 1.2 percent or less.
One bright spot in the consumption data: Greece, Spain and Portugal, the three member states that have been hit the hardest by statist austerity, now have an annual consumption growth rate well above 2.5 percent. Portugal has been above two percent for three quarters in a row; a closer look at these three countries is merited.
Overall, though, the statist-austerity policies during the Great Recession have caused a structural shift in the European economy that may be hard to reverse. From having been a consumer-based economy with strong exports, the EU has now basically been transformed into an exports-driven economy. On average, gross exports is larger as share of GDP than private consumption.
In theory, one could argue that this is a sign of free-market trade where people and businesses choose to buy what they want and need from abroad instead. I would be inclined to agree – but only in theory. In practice, if households and businesses freely made their choices on a global market, then rising exports would correlate with rising imports and, most importantly, rising private consumption. However, that is not the case in Europe. On average for the 28 EU member states,
- Exports has increased from an unweighted average of 59 percent of GDP in 2007 to an unweighted average of 70 percent in 2014;
- Net exports has also increases, from zero in 2007 (indicating trade balance) to six percent of GDP in 2014 (indicating a massive trade surplus).
If the rising exports had been a sign of increased participation in global trade on free-market terms, then either of two things would have happened: consumption would have increased as share of GDP or imports would have increased on par with exports. In reality, neither has happened, which leads to one of two conclusions:
- There has been a massive increase in corporate investments, which if true would indicate growing confidence in the future among Europe’s businesses; or
- Exports is the only category of the economy that is allowed to grow because it is not subject to the tight spending restrictions imposed by austerity.
Gross fixed capital formation, or “investments” as it is often casually referred to, was an unweighted average of 26 percent in the EU member states in 2007. Seven years later it had fallen to 21 percent. This is clearly a vote of no confidence from corporate Europe. Therefore, only one explanation remains: the discrepancy between on the one hand the rise in gross and net exports and, on the other hand, stagnant private consumption and a declining investment share, is the result of a fiscal policy driven by statist austerity.
The purpose of fiscal policy in Europe since at least the beginning of the Great Recession has been to balance the government budget at any cost. If this statist austerity leads to a painful decline in household consumption or corporate investments, then so be it. As shown by the numbers reported here, years of statist austerity have depressed corporate activity. In fixed prices, gross fixed capital formation in the EU has not increased since 2011:
- In the third quarter of 2011 businesses invested for 607.8 billion euros;
- In the third quarter of 2014 they invested for 602 billion euros.
The bottom line here is that the only form of economic activity that brings any kind of growth to the European economy is – you guessed it – exports. But it is not just any exports. It is exports outside of the EU. How do we know that? Because of the following two tables. First, the average annual private-consumption growth rate, reported quarterly, for the past eight quarters (ending Q3 2014):
|Private consumption growth|
With private consumption growing at less than one percent in 19 out of 28 countries, households in the EU do not form a good market for foreign exporters.
Things a not really better in the category of business investments:
|Gross fixed capital formation|
What this means, in plain English, is that the European economy still is not pulling itself out of its recession.
But is it not possible that things have changed recently? After all, the time series analyzed here end with the third quarter of 2014. There is always that possibility, but one indication that the answer is negative is the latest report on euro-zone inflation. From EU Business:
Eurozone consumer prices fell by a record 0.6 percent in January, EU data showed Friday, confirming deflation could be taking hold and putting pressure on a historic bond-buying plan by the ECB to deliver. The drop from minus 0.2 percent in December appears to back the European Central Bank’s decision last week to launch a bond-buying spree to drive up prices. Plummeting world oil prices were largely to blame for the fall in the 19-country eurozone, already beset by weak economic growth and high unemployment, the EU’s data agency Eurostat said.
If the EU governments let declining oil prices trickle down to consumers – and avoid raising taxes in response – there could be a positive reaction in private consumption. However, lower gasoline and home heating costs will not be enough to turn around the European economy.
More on that later, though. For now, the conclusion is that Europe is going nowhere.
Only a couple of days after the European Central Bank raised white flag and finally gave up its attempts at defending the euro as a strong, global currency, Greek voters drove their own dagger through the heart of the euro. Reports The Telegraph:
Greece set itself on a collision course with the rest of Europe on Sunday night after handing a stunning general election victory to a far-Left party that has pledged to reject austerity and cancel the country’s billions of pounds in debt. In a resounding rebuff to the country’s loss of financial sovereignty, With 92 per cent of the vote counted, Greeks gave Syriza 36.3 percent of the vote – 8.5 points more than conservative New Democracy party of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.
That is about six percent more than most polls predicted. But even worse than their voter share is how the parliamentary system distributes mandates. The Telegraph again:
It means they will be able to send between 149 and 151 MPs to the 300-seat parliament, putting them tantalisingly close to an outright majority. The final result was too close to call – if they win 150 seats or fewer, they will have to form a coalition with one of several minor parties. … Syriza is now likely to become the first anti-austerity party in Europe to form a government. … The election victory threatens renewed turmoil in global markets and throws Greece’s continued membership of the euro zone into question. All eyes will be on the opening of world financial markets on Monday, although fears of a “Grexit” – Greece having to leave the euro – and a potential collapse of the currency has been less fraught than during Greece’s last general election in 2012.
It does not quite work that way. The euro is under compounded pressure from many different elements, one being the Greek economic crisis. The actions by the ECB themselves have done at least as much to undermine the euro: its pledge last year to buy all treasury bonds from euro-zone governments that the market wanted to sell was a de facto promise to monetize euro-denominated government debt. The EU constitution, in particular its Stability and Growth Pact, explicitly forbids debt and deficit monetization. By so blatantly violating the constitution, the ECB undermined its own credibility.
Now the ECB has announced that in addition to debt monetization, it will monetize new deficit. That was the essence of the message this past Thursday. The anti-constitutionality of its own policies was thereby solidified; when the Federal Reserve ran its multi-year Quantitative Easing program it never violated anything other than sound economic principles. If the ECB so readily violates the Stability and Growth Pact, then who is to say it won’t violate any other of its firmly declared policy goals? When euro-zone inflation eventually climbs back to two percent – the ECB’s target value – how can global investors trust the ECB to then turn on anti-inflationary policies?
Part of the reason for the Stability and Growth Pact was that the architects of the European Union wanted to avoid runaway monetary policy, a phenomenon Europeans were all too familiar with from the 1960s and ’70s. Debt and deficit monetization is a safe way to such runaway money printing. What reasons do we have, now, to believe that the ECB will stick to its anti-inflationary pledge when the two-percent inflation day comes?
This long-winded explanation is needed as a background to the effects that the Syriza victory may have on the euro. I am the first to conclude that those effects will be clearly and unequivocally negative, but as a stand-alone problem for the ECB the Greek hard-left turn is not enough. In a manner of speaking, the ECB is jeopardizing the future of the euro by having weakened the currency with reckless monetary expansionism to the point where a single member-state election can throw the future of the entire currency union into doubt.
Exactly how the end of the euro will play out remains to be seen. What we do know, though, is that Thursday’s deficit-monetization announcement and the Greek election victory together put the euro under lethal pressure. The deficit-monetization pledge is effectively a blank check to countries like Greece to go back to the spend-to-the-end heydays. Since the ECB now believes that more deficit spending is good for the economy, it has handed Syriza an outstanding argument for abandoning the so-deeply hated austerity policies that the ECB, the EU and the IMF have imposed on the country. The Telegraph again:
[Syriza], a motley collection of communists, Maoists and socialists, wants to roll back five years of austerity policies and cancel a large part of Greece’s 320 billion euro debt, which at more than 175 per cent of GDP is the world’s second highest proportional to the size of the economy after Japan. … If they fulfil the threats, Greece’s membership of the euro zone could be in peril. Mr Tsipras has toned down the anti-euro rhetoric he used during Greece’s last election in 2012 and now insists he wants Greece to stay in the euro zone. Austerity policies imposed by the EU and International Monetary Fund have produced deep suffering, with the economy contracting by a quarter, youth unemployment rising to 50 per cent and 200,000 Greeks leaving the country.
Youth unemployment was up to 60 percent at the very depth of the depression. Just a detail. The Telegraph concludes by noting that:
Mr Tsipras has pledged to reverse many of the reforms that the hated “troika” of the EU, IMF and European Central Bank have imposed, including privatisations of state assets, cuts to pensions and a reduction of the minimum wage. But the creditors have insisted they will hold Greece to account and expect it to stick to its austerity programmes, heralding a potentially explosive showdown.
Again, with the ECB’s own Quantitative Easing program it becomes politically and logically impossible for the Bank and its two “troika” partners to maintain that Greece should continue with austerity. You cannot laud government deficit spending with one side of your mouth while criticizing it with the other.
As a strictly macroeconomic event, the ECB’s capitulation on austerity is not bad for Greece. The policies were not designed to lift the economy out of the ditch. They were designed to make big government more affordable to a shrinking private-sector economy. However, a return to government spending on credit is probably the only policy strategy that could possibly have even worse long-term effects than statist austerity.
Unfortunately, it looks like that is exactly where Greece is heading. Syriza’s “vision” of reversing years of welfare-state spending cuts is getting a lot of support from various corners of Europe’s punditry scene. For example, in an opinion piece at Euractiv.com, Marianna Fotaki, professor of business ethics at University of Warwick, England, claims that the Syriza victory gives Europe a chance to “rediscover its social responsibility”:
Greece’s entire economy accounts for three per cent of the eurozone’s output, but its national debt totals €360 billion or 175 per cent of the country’s GDP and poses a continuous threat to its survival. While the crippling debt cannot realistically be paid back in full, the troika of the EU, European Central Bank, and IMF insist that the drastic cuts in public spending must continue. But if Syriza is successful – as the polls suggest – it promises to renegotiate the terms of the bailout and ask for substantial debt forgiveness, which could change the terms of the debate about the future of the European project.
As I explained recently, so called “debt forgiveness” means that private-sector investors lose the same amount of money. The banks that received such generous bailouts earlier in the Great Recession had made substantial investments in Greek government debt. Would Professor Fotaki like to see those same banks lose even more money? With the new bank-rescue feature introduced as the Cyprus Bank Heist, such losses would lead to confiscation of the savings that regular families have deposited in their savings accounts.
Would professor Fotaki consider that that to be an ethically acceptable consequence of her desired Greek debt “forgiveness”?
Professor Fotaki then goes on a long tirade to make the case for more income redistribution within the euro zone:
The immense social cost of the austerity policies demanded by the troika has put in question the political and social objectives of an ‘ever closer union’ proclaimed in the EU founding documents. … Since the economic crisis of 2007 … GDP per capita and gross disposable household incomes have declined across the EU and have not yet returned to their pre-crisis levels in many countries. Unemployment is at record high levels, with Greece and Spain topping the numbers of long-term unemployed youth. There are also deep inequalities within the eurozone. Strong economies that are major exporters have benefitted from free trade, and the fixed exchange rate mechanism protecting their goods from price fluctuations. But the euro has hurt the least competitive economies by depriving them of a currency flexibility that could have been used to respond to the crisis. Without substantial transfers between weaker and stronger economies, which accounts for only 1.13 per cent of the EU’s budget at present, there is no effective mechanism for risk sharing among the member states and for addressing the consequences of the crisis in the eurozone.
In other words, Europe’s welfare statists will continue to blame the common currency for the consequences of statist austerity. But while professor Fotaki does have a point that the euro zone is not nearly an optimal currency area, the problems that she blames on the euro zone are not the fault of the common currency. Big government is a problem wherever it exists; in the case of the euro zone, big government has caused substantial deficits that, in turn, the European political leadership did not want to accept – and the European constitution did not allow. To battle those deficits the EU, the ECB and the IMF imposed harsh austerity policies on Greece among several other countries. But countries can subject themselves to those policies without being part of a currency union: Denmark in the 1980s is one example, Sweden in the ’90s another. (I have an entire chapter on the Swedish ’90s crisis in my book Industrial Poverty.) The problem is the structurally unaffordable welfare state, not the currency union.
Professor Fotaki again:
The member states that benefitted from the common currency should lead in offering meaningful support, rather than decimating their weaker members in a time of crisis by forcing austerity measures upon them. This is not denying the responsibility for reckless borrowing resting with the successive Greek governments and their supporters. However, the logic of a collective punishment of the most vulnerable groups of the population, must be rejected.
What seems to be so difficult to understand here is that austerity, as designed for Greece, was not aimed at terminating the programs that those vulnerable groups life off. It was designed to make those programs fit a smaller tax base. If Europe’s political leaders had wanted to terminate those programs and leave the poor out to dry, they would simply have terminated the programs. But their goal was instead to make the welfare state more affordable.
It is an undeniable fact that the politicians and economists who imposed statist austerity on Greece did so without being aware of the vastly negative consequences that those policies would have for the Greek economy. For example, the IMF grossly miscalculated the contractionary effects of austerity on the Greek economy, a miscalculation their chief economist Olivier Blanchard – the honorable man and scholar he is – has since explained and taken responsibility for.
Nevertheless, the macroeconomic miscalculations and misunderstandings that have surrounded statist austerity since 2010 (when it was first imposed on Greece) do not change the fact that the goal of said austerity policies was to reduce the size of government to fit a smaller economy. That was a disastrous intention, as shown by experience from the Great Recession – but it was nevertheless their goal. However, as professor Fotaki demonstrates with her own rhetoric, this point is lost on the welfare statists whose only intention now is to restore the welfare state to its pre-crisis glory:
The old poor and the rapidly growing new poor comprise significant sections of Greek society: 20 per cent of children live in poverty, while Greece’s unemployment rate has topped 20 per cent for four consecutive years now and reached almost 27 per cent in 2013. With youth unemployment above 50 per cent, many well-educated people have left the country. There is no access to free health care and the weak social safety net from before the crisis has all but disappeared. The dramatic welfare retrenchment combined with unemployment has led to austerity induced suicides and people searching for food in garbage cans in cities.
There is nothing wrong factually in this. The Greek people have suffered enormously under the heavy hand of austerity, simply because the policies that aim to save the welfare state for them also move the goal post: higher taxes and spending cuts drain the private sector of money, shrinking the very tax base that statist austerity tries to match the welfare state with.
The problem is in what the welfare statists want to do about the present situation. What will be accomplished by increasing entitlement spending again? Greek taxpayers certainly cannot afford it. Is Greece going to get back to deficit-funded spending again? Professor Fotaki gives us a clue to her answer in the opening of her article: debt forgiveness. She wants Greece to unilaterally write down its debt and for creditors to accept the write-down without protest.
The meaning of this is clear. Greece should be able to restore its welfare state to even more unaffordable levels without the constraints and restrictions imposed by economic reality. This is a passioned plea for a new debt crisis: who will lend money to a government that will unilaterally write down its debt whenever it feels it cannot pay back what it owes?
This kind of rhetoric from the emboldened European left rings of the same contempt for free-market Capitalism that once led to the creation of the modern welfare state. The welfare state, in turn, brought about debt crises in many European countries during the 1980s and ’90s, in response to which the EU created its Stability and Growth Pact. But the welfare states remained and gradually eroded the solidity of the Pact. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, the European economy would have absorbed it and shrugged it off as yet another recession – just as it did in the early ’90s – had not the welfare state been there. Welfare-state created debt and deficits had already stretched the euro-zone economy thin; all it took to sink Europe into industrial poverty and permanent stagnation was a quickly unfolding recession.
Ironically, the state of stagnation has been reinforced by austerity policies that were designed in compliance with the Stability and Growth Pact; by complying with the Pact, those policies, it was said, would secure the macroeconomic future of the euro zone and keep the euro strong. Now those policies have led the ECB to a point where it has destroyed the future of its own currency.