Greece: Last Exit To Nowhere?

If the strongest argument against going back to the Drachma always was that this would imply default, now that default is coming, why not allow Greece to devalue? As Krugman says, the issue isn’t whether Greece would openly decide to exit the euro, the issue is what happens if the markets force this solution on Greek and European leaders? Given the programme isn’t working, the likelihood of this event occurring in the next 2 or 3 years is far from being negligible, so why not be proactive rather than always being reactive? What matters is whether Greece becomes Turkey (oh what a historical irony) or Argentina. If the powers that be can agree on an ordered restructuring of Greek debt, and a controlled exit from the Eurozone, then Greece has some possibilities of turning the situation round. If exit is forced on Greece in order to escape the clutches of both the EU and the IMF then the move will be, as I suggest in my title, simply the last exit to nowhere.

By Edward Hugh

“Some economists, myself included, look at Europe’s woes and have the feeling that we’ve seen this movie before, a decade ago on another continent — specifically, in Argentina” – Paul Krugman: Can Europe Be Saved

“Think of it this way: the Greek government cannot announce a policy of leaving the euro — and I’m sure it has no intention of doing that. But at this point it’s all too easy to imagine a default on debt, triggering a crisis of confidence, which forces the government to impose a banking holiday — and at that point the logic of hanging on to the common currency come hell or high water becomes a lot less compelling.”

Paul Krugman – How Reversible Is The Euro?

Krugman is certainly right. Looking over towards Athens right now, you can’t help having that horrible feeling of deja vu. Adding to the uncomfortable feeling of travelling backwards rather than forwards in time (oh, I know, I know, when history repeats itself it only piles one tragedy onto another) is the uncomfortable presence of Charles Calomiris, a US economist of Greek origins. I can still remember reading back in the autumn of 2000 an article by Domingo Cavallo published in the Spanish newspaper El Pais where he proudly proclaimed that “it is only a few neurotic US economists who are suggesting that we will default and break the peg”. This, of course, was only a matter of weeks before Adolfo Rodríguez Saá (the man who was President for a mere 8 days) entered both history and the Argentine parliamentary chamber in order to uttered the now immortal phrase “vamos a coger el torro por los cuernos” (we are going to take the bull by the horns) which was obviously one of those Austinian performatives, since at one and the same time as uttering it he effectively ended the peg. Well today Calomiris is with us, and is still hard at work, only this time he is using his insights to prophesy not only Greek default, but sufficient contagion in the wake to bring the whole Euro project to an untimely end. In an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The End Of The Euro”, he tells us:

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Europe is living in denial. Even after the economic crisis exposed the eurozone’s troubled future, its leaders are struggling to sustain the status quo. At this point, several European countries will likely be forced to abandon the euro within the next year or two….The only way out of this conundrum is for countries with insurmountable debt burdens to default on their euro-denominated debts and exit the eurozone so that they can finance their continuing fiscal deficits by printing their own currency. Here’s a hint for Europe’s politicians: If the math says one thing and the law says something different, it will be the law that ends up changing

Really, I don’t think of Calomiris as a prophet (or even as a Cassandra), I don’t even think of him as an especially insightful economist when it comes to the macro problems of the real economy, but I do think he has one exceptionally strong merit: he can do the math, and as he says, if it gets down to a battle between legal details and arithmetic, arithmetic will always win.

Easy Said & Easy Done, Down the Argentina Path We Go!

As it happens, the issue of Argentina as a reference case for Greece has surfaced again this week, in the form of an Op-ed in the New York Times by the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research Mark Weisbrot.

Weisbrots’s argument is not new, but it is different, not only because he thinks Greece would be better off leaving the euro (many economists share that opinion), but because of the apparent eulogy he makes of the Argentine case.

“For more than three and a half years Argentina had suffered through one of the deepest recessions of the 20th century……Then Argentina defaulted on its foreign debt and cut loose from the dollar. Most economists and the business press predicted that years of disaster would ensue. But the economy shrank for just one more quarter after the devaluation and default; it then grew 63 percent over the next six years. More than 11 million people, in a nation of 39 million, were pulled out of poverty”.

Now these are strong claims. But let’s leave aside the issue of whether or not 11 million people were pulled out of poverty or not, and dig a bit deeper into what actually happened in Argentina, and let’s do this by comparing it with another country, one which arguably has similar social and economic development characteristics, Chile. At the turn of the century Chile had a population of more or less 15 million, as compared with the 39 million Argentinians mentioned by Weisbrot. Now in 1998, just before Argentina entered its depression, Chilean GDP was some 79 billion dollars, while Argentina’s was 299 billion dollars. Now let’s fast forward to 2010, Argentina’s GDP at the end of last year was 370 billion dollars, and Chile’s 203 billion. That is to say, between 1998 and 2010 Argentina’s GDP (as measured in dollars, we’ll come back to this) increased by 24%, while Chile’s increased by 156%. As they say in Spanish “no hay color” (there is simply no comparison). And when you think that Chile has only 38% of Argentina’s population, while it has 55% of Argentina’s GDP. So over the 12 years between 1998 and 2010 Chile (which maintained a floating currency throughout) evidently did a lot better than Argentina.

So why use USD as the measure of comparison? I do this since it gives the most convenient evaluation (euros would do equally well) of the relative external values of the two economies. This is important, since Argentina apparently high growth levels have been also associated with high inflation levels, which have been constantly compensated for by devaluing the peso. (In fact Bank of America Merrill Lynch currency strategist – and former IMF economist – Thanos Vamvakidis makes an essentially similar point (although with different conclusions) in a research note covered recently by FT Alphaville’s Tracy Alloway:

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“In our view, …(the results of our study)…. point to the conclusion that exchange rate devaluations do not lead to permanent competitiveness improvements in rigid economies, such as in the Eurozone periphery. In this context, tail risk scenarios about EUR exit are misplaced. Structural reforms are the best bet to improve the periphery’s growth prospects, within or outside monetary union”.

Does this whole debate sound familiar to anyone? Anyone remember when Italians were paying themselves in million lira notes? In fact, it was precisely to break the Southern European countries from the high inflation, high interest rates, periodic devaluation dynamic that the Euro was thought to be such a good idea in the first place. It hasn’t worked as planned, but that doesn’t mean that the most traditional and the most simplistic solutions are necessarily going to be the best ones.

On the other hand, does this mean we should then go on to dismiss the coming out of the euro option out of hand for Greece? Evidently not. Let’s look at another comparison, this time Argentina and Turkey.

Now in 1998 Turkey had a dollar GDP of $269 billion, and by 2010 this had become $742 billion. That is it had nearly tripled. Yet Turkey’s dollar GDP dropped sharply in 2001 following a substantial devaluation of the Lira. Conclusion, competitive devaluations are sometimes useful, so what makes the difference?

Well Paul Krugman got near to it, when he said in his article on Weisbrot’s proposal:

“Greece, as a relatively poor country with a history of shaky governance, has a lot to gain from being a citizen in good standing of the European project — concrete things like aid from cohesion funds, hard-to-quantity but probably important things like the stabilizing effect, economically and politically, of being part of a grand democratic alliance”.

We can sum the essence of all this up in a couple of phrases “institutional quality” and “structural reforms”. Or put another way, Turkey devalued as part of an IMF programme (it was actually recommended, in the days before the heavy hand of the EU took management control at the IMF), while Argentina broke the peg and devalued in order to get out of one. Turkey was not only able to benefit from the reform pressure instigated by the IMF (the stick), but also by the promise of EU membership under certain conditions (the carrot). Indeed, curiously, EU cultural reservations about Turkish membership have probably lead to far stricter reform hurdles than were either applied to the current members in the South or the East, and Turkey is undoubtedly the great beneficiary of this strictness.

Which brings us to the main point: should Greece leave or not leave the Euro? Well, let’s go back to something Krugman said in another blog post (How Reversible Is The Euro):

“Think of it this way: the Greek government cannot announce a policy of leaving the euro — and I’m sure it has no intention of doing that. But at this point it’s all too easy to imagine a default on debt, triggering a crisis of confidence, which forces the government to impose a banking holiday — and at that point the logic of hanging on to the common currency come hell or high water becomes a lot less compelling.”

or as he argues in his latest post:

“That said, Weisbrot is right in saying that the program for Greece is not working; it’s not even close to working. At the very least there must be a debt restructuring that actually reduces the debt burden rather than simply stretching it out. And the longer this situation remains unresolved, the less hope I have that Greece will be able to stay in the euro, even if it wants to”.

The present situation is unworkable, not only because the accumulated debts are unpayable by Greece alone, but also because the tiny size of Greek manufacturing industry and the lack of international competitiveness of the Greek economy make an export lead growth process with the present state of relative prices virtually impossible. There are solutions to both these problems remaining within the Euro structure and without default – issuing Eurobonds to accept part of the Greek debt and enforcing a substantial internal devaluation to restore external competitiveness – but since the adoption of these two strategies is virtually unthinkable in the present situation, then we are likely to find ourselves with some kind of Greek default, and given that the programme as it stands isn’t working (this is where the situation so resembles pre-default Argentina as the extent of the fiscal correction means the contraction feeds on itself given that exports cannot expand fast enough), it would be advisable to accompany this default with some sort of devaluation.

Put another way, if the strongest argument against going back to the Drachma always was that this would imply default, now that default is coming, why not allow Greece to devalue? As Krugman says, the issue isn’t whether Greece would openly decide to exit the euro, the issue is what happens if the markets force this solution on Greek and European leaders? Given the programme isn’t working, the likelihood of this event occurring in the next 2 or 3 years is far from being negligible, so why not be proactive rather than always being reactive? What matters is whether Greece becomes Turkey (oh what a historical irony) or Argentina. If the powers that be can agree on an ordered restructuring of Greek debt, and a controlled exit from the Eurozone, then Greece has some possibilities of turning the situation round. If exit is forced on Greece in order to escape the clutches of both the EU and the IMF then the move will be, as I suggest in my title, simply the last exit to nowhere. The tragi-comic events surrounding the fate of IMF Director General Dominique Strauss Kahn may well mean that we are about to see significant changes in that organisation. It is to be hoped that, if this is the case, such changes will also involve a rethink of the IMF’s role in Europe’s crisis, and in particular of the objectives and means of implementation of the Greek programme, with the Fund moving towards a less-eurocentric and more balanced position, one which would be in the collective interest of the community of citizens of the wide variety of countries the institution represents.

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2 Comments
  1. Anonymous says

    “The official truth” is that Greece, Ireland, Portugal and – still voluntarily – the UK must pull off the strict austerity measures and try to hang on.

    For most people, I’d just say: “Look and learn about Iceland.” It has twice overthrown the idea of pay bank debt through people. Yes, it collapsed and everything looked shaky. But when the scores are nil-nil there will be players trying to claim the first trophy: the confidence is back.

    About bailouting their (Iceland and Ireland) situation where close enough alike. Iceland, having 300,000 population were expected to pay off billions of pounds to the British and euros to the Dutch. The country is much better off now. The ultimate leverage players shoveled off the losses and now, hopefully, the stability is stronger. New players kicked in and there lies Iceland’s hope. The idiom: “Markets will punish in haste but they also tend to forgive quickly” is still holding. The reason Irish seemed “stupid” might be the reason they were forced to receive “aid.” The same pattern was seen on Portugal. They refused but O. Rehn and J-C. Trichet kept pushing on. Morgan Kelly says it is because lecturing: Spain would be too much of a threat and Spain needs to see what would be there for her shoud she fail to meet her targets.

    So, how Ireland fares compared to Iceland? Both were sinking down beneath the surface approximately the same time. Now it looks like you receive low odds betting Iceland. Strangulation (i.e. austerity) has seldom succeeded to save a life.

    I think there is no reason to postpone the inevitable. There will be debt-restructuring for Greece, but the “soft” one might be just too late. I said this a year ago, when it was discussed to bail out or not to bail out. I think I got it back then: rampant tax evasion (I mean more huge than that), unbelievable liabilities for the government (like paying retiement benefits to the dead’s heirs or extras for working near temperatures of 0°C (32F, 273K.)

    They say that privatisation will be the key. Partially, yes. By closing the public jobs cashing hundreds of thousands will cut severely the costs. However, tax evasion would most likely to increase and according to the media, ripping it off has been extremely difficult.

    Reading on Irish Times’ article about Argentina for a decade ago made me really think about MKULTRA project. CIA tried to control mind but as it failed there is a new method of making people to act as the operator pleases: fearmongering. It has made me more suspicious about news and media, who pays the autrhors’ salaries and all that stuff. The mother theory of all conspiracies, if you like.

    Humans as one of the species evolved more rapidly against other mammals because they co-operated and treated each other fair. Fairness you need to achieve the co-op. Of course, there were physical things, as well, but after the ice age when food was scarce the one species thrived because of co-operating. Humans. Us. Co-operation. I hope everyone knows what co-op still is, at least in theory.

    That is NOT bail-outing.

    1. DavidLazarusUK says

      Greece Ireland and Iceland would all be better off defaulting. None of this 10% hair cut but full outright default. Let the CDS markets reimburse the holders of those bonds or even the speculators gambling on default. If there were a wave of CDS defaults it would wipe out the corrupt financial players. Co-operation only works when the deals are fair. The current deals offered to the PIIGS have been far from fair. The core nations are only trying to avoid having to accept that their regulation of their own banks has been woeful. 

  2. Anonymous says

    “The official truth” is that Greece, Ireland, Portugal and – still voluntarily – the UK must pull off the strict austerity measures and try to hang on.

    For most people, I’d just say: “Look and learn about Iceland.” It has twice overthrown the idea of pay bank debt through people. Yes, it collapsed and everything looked shaky. But when the scores are nil-nil there will be players trying to claim the first trophy: the confidence is back.

    About bailouting their (Iceland and Ireland) situation where close enough alike. Iceland, having 300,000 population were expected to pay off billions of pounds to the British and euros to the Dutch. The country is much better off now. The ultimate leverage players shoveled off the losses and now, hopefully, the stability is stronger. New players kicked in and there lies Iceland’s hope. The idiom: “Markets will punish in haste but they also tend to forgive quickly” is still holding. The reason Irish seemed “stupid” might be the reason they were forced to receive “aid.” The same pattern was seen on Portugal. They refused but O. Rehn and J-C. Trichet kept pushing on. Morgan Kelly says it is because lecturing: Spain would be too much of a threat and Spain needs to see what would be there for her shoud she fail to meet her targets.

    So, how Ireland fares compared to Iceland? Both were sinking down beneath the surface approximately the same time. Now it looks like you receive low odds betting Iceland. Strangulation (i.e. austerity) has seldom succeeded to save a life.

    I think there is no reason to postpone the inevitable. There will be debt-restructuring for Greece, but the “soft” one might be just too late. I said this a year ago, when it was discussed to bail out or not to bail out. I think I got it back then: rampant tax evasion (I mean more huge than that), unbelievable liabilities for the government (like paying retiement benefits to the dead’s heirs or extras for working near temperatures of 0°C (32F, 273K.)

    They say that privatisation will be the key. Partially, yes. By closing the public jobs cashing hundreds of thousands will cut severely the costs. However, tax evasion would most likely to increase and according to the media, ripping it off has been extremely difficult.

    Reading on Irish Times’ article about Argentina for a decade ago made me really think about MKULTRA project. CIA tried to control mind but as it failed there is a new method of making people to act as the operator pleases: fearmongering. It has made me more suspicious about news and media, who pays the autrhors’ salaries and all that stuff. The mother theory of all conspiracies, if you like.

    Humans as one of the species evolved more rapidly against other mammals because they co-operated and treated each other fair. Fairness you need to achieve the co-op. Of course, there were physical things, as well, but after the ice age when food was scarce the one species thrived because of co-operating. Humans. Us. Co-operation. I hope everyone knows what co-op still is, at least in theory.

    That is NOT bail-outing.

    1. Anonymous says

      Greece Ireland and Iceland would all be better off defaulting. None of this 10% hair cut but full outright default. Let the CDS markets reimburse the holders of those bonds or even the speculators gambling on default. If there were a wave of CDS defaults it would wipe out the corrupt financial players. Co-operation only works when the deals are fair. The current deals offered to the PIIGS have been far from fair. The core nations are only trying to avoid having to accept that their regulation of their own banks has been woeful. 

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