Politics and Economics

A Greek exit from the Euro is now the best possible outcome for Greece and the Eurozone.

The Eurozone nations would be foolish to bail out the Greek Economy without insisting on the structural reforms necessary to stop a repeat performance in a year or two.

And why should only Greece get special access to no-strings-attached free money?  Why should Germans be forced to retire at 67 so Greeks can retire at 55? A Greek bailout at Germany’s expense would cause a landslide of further left-wing governments in Portugal, Spain, Italy and elsewhere with hands outstretched and beaks wide open. The Greek debt is barely manageable by the Eurozone but an emergency bail out of any of the other larger economies would cause a pan-European economic catastrophe.

Greece’s existing deal with its creditors is very lenient.  Its private debts have already been largely forgiven and the remaining €243 billion of debt is to be repaid with outrageously low interest rates over a very long repayment period.  Its interest payments are currently less than 3% of GDP, which is manageable even for Greece.

The sad irony for the Greek people is that their economic fortunes had finally started to recover when Syriza came to power.  For the first time since the first Greek bail out five years ago the Greek Economy showed modest growth and a small budget surplus (excluding interest payment) in 2014.

Syriza should have used this firmer economic base to confront the pervasive tax evasion, abysmal public administration, inflexible markets and rampant corruption to drive further economic gains for the Greek people.  Instead it has embarked on a shambolic campaign to disprove the laws of arithmetic by insisting on implementing fantasy socialist economics without the cash to fund it.  This includes reversals to labour-market reforms and promises to raise the minimum wage to pre-crisis levels, both of which are madness in country with 50% youth unemployment.  They also plan the restoration of pension increases when they should slash early retirement rights to prevent more people switching from employment to dependency.  Their planned rehiring of thousands of public sector workers and the scrapping of privatisation projects is unaffordable and if they cannot collect income tax there is no choice but to raise more VAT, which they also oppose.   Their proposals would both breach Greece’s agreed bail-out terms and wreck the economy.  Since Syriza came to power the economy started shrinking sharply and the small budget surplus has once again descended to a massive shortfall.   This is despite increasingly desperate measures such as raiding the funds of municipalities and delaying payments to suppliers.

In 2001 Greece used some opaque and creative accounting to fool the EU’s auditors into believing it had a budget deficit of only 1.5% of GDP.  It subsequently emerged that the true deficit at the time was more than 8%, which is well above the 3% limit set out in the Maastricht treaty and would have prevented it joining the Euro.   If the Euro is to endure its rules must be enforceable. Mr. Tsipras is still ignoring those rules and he has torn up the legal agreement made by the previous Greek Government with its creditors .

So Syriza have done nothing to rebuild trust and economic credibility and many doubt that Greece would honour any future promises it makes.  Creditors are likely to demand more onerous terms than before and a rigorous inspection process to ensure the terms are honoured.  This is unlikely to be acceptable to the Greek people let alone Syriza.

Syriza’s adolescently amateurish diplomacy has alienated many of the Eurozone countries previously sympathetic to Greece’s plight. Mr. Tsipras’s courting of the sabre rattling Russian regime currently annexing parts of Ukraine, hysterical allegations of criminality against the IMF and revisiting claims of war crimes and demands of reparations from Germany are hardly going to win sympathy and influence with its allies.

Syriza’s conduct sets a poor precedent and if successful would open the door for other states to behave similarly in order to get access to free money from its partners.

Astoundingly these acrimonious economic and political disputes relate to the relatively trivial issue of how to conclude Greece’s second bail-out. Even if a deal is patched-up the funds will be immediately swallowed up.  Greece will still need to negotiate a third bail-out of about €50 billion. And unless Greece makes the much needed but much hated structural reforms this would still not be the end of it.

Compared to the last Greek economic crisis in 2012 the Eurozone is better prepared to manage a Greek exit. Its banks are well capitalised and have virtually no exposure to Greece; a large bail-out fund is established; quantitative easing is supporting bond and equity markets; and the weak euro is boosting exports.  A Greek exit would also dissuade other vulnerable Eurozone countries from dragging their feet on structural reforms and drain support from their extreme populist political parties.

So Syriza’s almost comical diplomatic and economic ineptitude has precipitated a situation where a Greek exit from the Euro and a re-launch of its own currency (the Drachma) is now the only realistic solution for any sort of independent long-term economic recovery.

By restoring the Drachma, Greece could have the flexibility to continually adjust its value on international currency markets to levels that cushion it from the shocks that are currently devastating its economy.

This is how it works:

Suppose on international money markets 100 Greek Drachmas is worth 1 Euro.  So a product that Greece was producing for 200 Drachmas costs 2 Euro in Germany. During a crisis the Drachma can be revalued to 200 Greek Drachmas to 1 Euro. Now when Greece exports its products to Germany its prices are much lower.  A product that costs 200 Drachmas to make is now selling for only 1 Euro, instead of 2 Euros.  This increases exports of Greek products to Germany, which supports Greek businesses and creates employment.  The Greek government gets more tax from successful domestic businesses and has lower costs because there is less unemployment and associated welfare costs.

Of course this also makes Greek imports more expensive.  Now if Greece wants to buy products and raw materials from Germany it has to pay twice as much.  To import a product from Germany which cost 1 Euro is now costing Greek businesses 200 Drachmas instead of 100 Drachmas.  This has the effect of causing Greek consumers and businesses to buy their products and raw materials from within Greece, which further boosts their economy.  It reduces imports and boosts domestic trade.

Furthermore Greek workers are still on the same salaries, which have the same buying power within Greece.  They will not notice a difference to their living standards unless they go on holiday in Germany where they will find prices very high.  This will encourage them to holiday at home further boosting the Greek Economy.  Also Germans will find being on holiday in Greece very cheap, so they will come in larger numbers, further boosting the Greek tourist trade.

So the ability to devalue a currency helps to smooth the problems of an economic crisis in poorly managed economies.

Now let’s consider the options for the Greeks if they share the same currency as Germany.

The Government cannot afford the interest payments on its loans and cannot borrow more so it must reduce Government spending and pay off some of the loans.  It must pay its public sector workers less salary and reduce government spending.  Greek industries are uncompetitive so they must reduce their costs too.  They must pay lower salaries and find further cost saving in its production.  This is not easy and lower salaries in Greece means lower spending by consumers causing the economy to slow further.  Germany has no incentive to buy Greek products or visit Greece on holiday, because it is just as expensive for them.  Unemployment stays high, which increases the costs to the Greek Government in unemployment benefit.  This means less money for investing in Greek infrastructure and industry that is essential to make them more competitive.

The situation is made worse for Greece if the German economy starts booming.  The value of the Euro will rise causing Greek exports to be even more expensive on international markets, which will cause their economy to slow even more.  This is because exchange rates are set at a level appropriate for the larger German Economy, not the smaller Greek economy.

To ensure that countries like Greece do not continue to mismanage their economies and cause future crisis within the single currency it is essential that their tax and spending policies are aligned with countries like Germany. Greece likes the economic security of the Eurozone and the financial protection it offers, but it seems they also do not want to to have their economic policies influenced by larger states.  They cannot have both.

This bailout is no longer working and a Greek exit from the Euro is now the best possible outcome for the Eurozone and Greece.   It will restore to Greece control of its economic destiny and restrict the consequences of its economic policies mainly to Greece.  It will also restrict an economic catastrophe to a mere disaster.