Lies, damned lies and Greece’s debt default
By Brett Arends
Let’s stop playing games and get it over with
Can we stop it, please, with the Greek debt panic?
Can we stop pretending that this crisis is something it isn’t, or that it involves principles it doesn’t, or that there is no alternative other than more pain on the streets of Athens?
There’s been a renewed flap following Sunday’s stunning Greek election victory for the radical Syriza party, which wants to renegotiate the country’s crippling debt burdens and escape the deflation trap imposed by external bankers.
It’s time for some hard, yet simple, truths.
Greece’s gross debts add up to around $320 billion in nominal value, according to the International Monetary Fund. That’s big compared to the Greek economy, but tiny compared to the world outside. It’s less than 3% of the entire eurozone economy, which is about $13.5 trillion. So even if Greece refused to pay one more nickel of its debts — an outcome no one is suggesting — the eurozone could make up the difference with about eight days’ output … or an hour’s money-printing by the ECB.
And the real value of the Greek national debt is even less than this nominal sum. That’s because the markets have already adjusted themselves sensibly to the situation. According to the National Bank of Greece, shorter-term government bonds are already trading at about 85 cents on the euro, while longer-term bonds are down to between 65 and 50 cents on the euro.
According to calculations by Felix Brill, chief economist at investment firm Wellershoff & Partners in Zurich, Switzerland, publicly traded Greek government bonds are trading at an average of 70 cents on the euro.
A debt default would probably make things better. It could hardly make them worse.
So, in real terms, a big chunk of that Greek debt has already been written off. Crisis? What crisis?
Second, the idea that a partial Greek debt default would somehow represent an earthquake in the world of finance, or endanger the eurozone, or be an improvident reward for the reckless and the feckless, is nonsense.
Nobody forced German and other bankers to buy Greek government bonds at absurd prices during the bubble.
Nobody forced banks to lend money to the Greek government on nearly the same terms as they lent to, say, the German or Dutch governments.
And nobody forced the international honchos at the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank or European Commission to take over those obligations from the banks a few years ago as a “bailout.”
The Greek economy is smaller than that of Louisiana. If a small U.S. state had to renegotiate muni-bond coupons, would it cause a U.S. financial collapse? Would it break up the dollar?
As for the principles involved, there’s a well-known saying in Hollywood: “It’s not ‘show friends’, it’s ‘show business.’” These are not personal debts or moral obligations. They are financial contracts. The bankers bought those bonds as a business proposition. It didn’t work out. Too bad. Do we scream whenever a borrower enters Chapter 11?
The people who were improvident were not the Greeks so much as the foolish people who lent them money on overly generous returns. The market has since re-imposed some discipline.
I had to laugh when Alexis Tsipras, the new Greek prime minister, suggested Germany owed Greece a lot of money for World War II atrocities. Yes, he was playing a cheap populist card. But there was a smart point inside it. If Germany after World War II had been hampered by repaying the world all its past debts, including all the money it owed everyone for Hitler, it would never have recovered.
Indeed, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel knows full well, that was tried before — with the German Weimar Republic after World War I. The result: Germany was still shipping money overseas to pay debts while the country was spiraling deeper and deeper into economic crisis during the 1920s and early 1930s. Eventually the Germans turned away from the mainstream parties that had locked them into this downward spiral and sought a radical alternative.
The situation in Greece today is comparably as bad as that in Germany in 1933. A debt default would probably make things better. It could hardly make them worse.
The official Greek unemployment rate is about 20%. According to official data, fewer than half of all Greeks ages 15 to 64 actually work for a living.
Yes, that includes many people who are studying, raising children, have taken early retirement or are otherwise off the payrolls by their own choice. But it also includes many who are out of work involuntarily. There are 1 million more pairs of idle hands than there were at the tail end of the boom, in 2007-2008.
And not only has the Greek economy missed out on six or seven years of growth, but, according to International Monetary Fund data, it is actually 15% smaller than it was then. That is the real deficit — the gap between what the country could be producing and isn’t producing. Roads not built, roofs not repaired, computer programs not written, classes not taught, crops not planted, income not earned, money not saved.
Oh, and it means German washing machines and cars not bought.
You cannot improve the situation by withdrawing money from circulation and sending it to Germany.
Default and get on with it, please. »»