Why Greece must default or restructure its debt

 

 

Greece will never be able to pay all its owes and the sooner its principal creditors — the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — face reality, the better for everyone.

 

(L-R) French President Francois Hollande, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy attend a Eurozone emergency summit on Greece in Brussels, Belgium, June 22, 2015.

Yves Herman | Reuters
(L-R) French President Francois Hollande, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy attend a Eurozone emergency summit on Greece in Brussels, Belgium, June 22, 2015.
 

 
The “Troika” of Greek creditors is demanding more austerity — cuts in government spending, higher taxes and labor-market reforms — to release another tranche of bailout funds. Without it, Greece can’t pay the 1.54 billion euros due the IMF on June 30.

Withdrawals from Greek banks would accelerate further and Athens would have to impose limits on private withdrawals and on the euros investors could take out of the country.

In the panic, a broader default on Greek debt would likely follow.

A disorderly collapse of Greek finances would do few involved — or global markets — much good but it’s foolish to believe more austerity and labor market reforms could fix Greece.

Thanks to austerity imposed since 2010, Athens has accomplished a primary national budget surplus. Spending, net of interest payments, is about 1 percent of GDP, and private-sector wages have fallen some 25 percent.

Contrary to the predictions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and IMF Managing Director Christine Legarde, those have not rekindled growth. GDP is down 25 percent and national debt has soared from 130 to 180 percent of GDP.

Servicing that debt would require a primary surplus of almost 6 percent of GDP — assuming creditors would accept a paltry 3 percent on bonds — and send Greece into a death spiral.

The required additional spending cuts and tax increases, applying conservative macroeconomic assumptions, would shrink the economy by another 6 percent. That would impel even more spending cuts, tax increases and economic downsizing.

The Greek government owes €131 billion — with the Troika holding in one form or another about €100 billion. Only forgiving half — likely more —of that debt offers any hope of stabilizing Greece, but politics and simple ignorance stand in the way.

Germany would take a big haircut on any Greek restructuring, and German voters suffer the fantasy they are rugged and industrious, whereas the Greeks are indolent and deadbeats.

Although Germany has greatly reformed the letter of its employment laws to be in step with the requirements of global competition, during the recent financial crisis, Berlin paid private employers to keep huge numbers of workers on the job. It seems reforms apply only when more generous policies are not needed to keep everyone employed.

Pushing down wages hasn’t worked for Greece, because it lacks a well-developed export sector in manufacturing. A good deal of its private foreign revenues flow from petroleum refining and shipping, and those are not as sensitive to movements in wages as stitching apparel and assembling iPhones in Asia. The constant fiscal crisis and uncertainly about Greek membership in the EU and tariff-free access to western European markets discourages new foreign investment to exploit lower wages.

For Germany and other creditors, the only sensible options are to accept big losses on the debt they hold now or let Greece leave the euro altogether. The latter would impose losses as the Greek debt remarked in drachma fell in value as the new currency depreciated to balance Greece’s foreign payments and receipts.

The size of those losses would depend on the terms of the divorce. If Greece were permitted to remain a member of the EU without the euro, or at least continue to have tariff-free access to EU markets, it would attract more foreign investment and the drachma depreciation and creditor haircuts would be more limited than if Germany and the others insisted on banishing Greece from the EU altogether.

At some point the facts and reason must triumph, but that may require new leadership in Germany and the IMF-leaders willing to see the light of day.

Commentary by Peter Morici, an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. Follow him on Twitter @pmorici1.

 ASIPRAS SAYS NO TO CREDITORS

(Adds big gaps after Tsipras/lenders meeting, Greek official)

* Tsipras meets heads of EU, euro zone, IMF and ECB

* Big gaps remain on taxes, pensions, labour reform

* Greek demand for debt restructuring not discussed

* Street protests in Athens against more austerity

* Backlash at home complicates parliamentary approval for Tsipras

BRUSSELS, June 24 (Reuters) – International creditors demanded sweeping changes to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ tax and reform proposals on Wednesday, adding fresh uncertainty to talks aimed at unlocking aid to avert a debt default next week.

Sources close to the negotiations said the creditors had presented counter-proposals covering an array of differences on sensitive issues, hours before euro zone finance ministers were due to convene (1700 GMT) to try to approve an agreement.

Before flying to Brussels, Tsipras attacked the position of “certain” creditors – a swipe at the International Monetary Fund – as strange since he said they had rejected fiscal measures Athens put forward to plug a budget gap.

“This odd stance seems to indicate that either there is no interest in an agreement or that special interests are being backed,” the leftist premier tweeted.

Financial markets reacted nervously, with investors rushing into safe-haven German bonds and the euro suffering a brief sell-off. European shares dropped and U.S. stocks opened lower.

A European Union official insisted the talks had not broken down and said the exchange of different proposals was a normal part of the negotiation. But a Greek official said the lenders’ five page counter-proposal – full of crossings-out and underlining in red ink – differed little from their initial June 3 offer and took scant account of Athens’ document.

In Athens, an official in Tsipras’ Syriza party said a state minister had branded the latest proposals “absurd” at a meeting of the party’s political committee.

The talks were especially fraught because there is so little time left to reach a deal before Greece has to make a repayment to the IMF on June 30, the day its current bailout expires.

If Greece misses that payment and is declared in default to the IMF, it could trigger a bank run, capital controls and an eventual Greek exit from the euro zone, showing that membership of the currency is not irrevocable as its founders intended.

Among the many unresolved issues were labour laws, collective bargaining, pension reform, public sector wages, opening up closed professions, investment as well as value-added tax and corporate income tax.

Also in dispute were Tsipras’ demands for debt relief, which euro zone partners do not want to address at this stage.

BARGAINING PROCESS

“Of course we want changes and they don’t, and this is part of the bargaining process, albeit less effective when done publicly,” a senior official from one of the creditors said.

Several sources said International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde was taking the hardest line against the Greek proposals on the table.

Tsipras met Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the heads of the IMF, the European Central Bank, the Eurogroup of finance ministers and the euro zone’s rescue fund to try to bridge the gaps.

Looking tense, he was driven into Commission headquarters through an underground garage to avoid the usual arrival statements, and given only a perfunctory handshake by Juncker before plunging into the meeting.

An official close to the creditors said in mid-afternoon the outcome of the negotiations remained up in the air.

“It is still very uncertain. We do not yet have a deal,” the official said when asked if the talks had made progress.

All 28 EU leaders will be in Brussels on Thursday and Friday for a regular summit, allowing more time to wrangle over Greece on the sidelines if there is no solution on Wednesday.

Officials said the IMF was most concerned about the balance of the package, too heavily skewed towards tax increases that could further weaken the Greek economy and prove hard to collect, rather than structural reforms.

“If you ask the question ‘Is this enough for the IMF to disburse?’, I suspect it’s not enough,” one official said.

Hardline German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble’s spokesman said there was a long way to go before an agreement.

A senior German official said Berlin could not imagine clinching an aid-for-reform deal without the IMF, which was needed not only for its funds but also its expertise.

The Greek proposals featured a series of tax hikes and higher contributions to pensions to meet budget targets. The IMF wants to see more savings achieved through budget cuts.

Greece will have to put the agreed measures through its parliament by Monday so that some other euro zone parliaments can endorse the deal and unblock aid funds.

Athens must repay 1.6 billion euros to the IMF next Tuesday. EU officials said the only way to fund that was for euro zone governments to hand over nearly 2 billion euros in profits from ECB holdings of Greek government bonds purchased in 2011-12.

EMERGENCY HELP

To keep Greek banks afloat, the ECB increased its emergency liquidity ceiling again on Tuesday. ECB sources have said the lifeline will be extended daily as long as there is a chance of a deal by end-June.

The more concessions Tsipras makes, the more resistance he will face in parliament within his leftist Syriza party and on the streets, where a series of recent protests, some organised with Syriza’s support, have underlined public opposition to yet more belt-tightening.

“There are four people in my household, and we are living on 600 euros a month. Where else does that happen?” said 59-year-old Antonia Methoniou, a cancer patient who took early retirement for health reasons.

The IMF says Greece will need either some form of debt restructuring or further loans to make its finances sustainable.

But euro zone officials insisted that the creditors would not discuss any debt restructuring until after Greece implements the remainder of its bailout programme, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has ruled out any “haircut” or debt write-off.

This will add to the difficulty of getting parliamentary approval in Athens, notably from the nationalist Independent Greeks, whose support Tsipras needs for a majority.

They also reject moves to scrap VAT exemptions enjoyed by some Greek islands.

“I could not vote for such a measure, nor, obviously, could I participate in a government violating a line on which we received a mandate from the Greek people,” party leader Panos Kammenos tweeted on Tuesday.

But Economy Minister George Stathakis said he was confident parliament would back a deal before June 30: “I think this balanced deal is defensible to Syriza, and in Greek society too.” ($1 = 0.8929 euros)

(Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris, George Georgiopoulos and Michele Kambas in Athens and John O’Donnell; Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by James Mackenzie, Kevin Liffey, Janet McBride)

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