John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: Greece (Page 1 of 2)

ARE THE CONDITIONS BEING IMPOSED ON GREECE TOO SEVERE?

………….PROBABLY NOT, BUT GREECE NEEDS HELP WITH THE RECEPTION OF SYRIAN REFUGEES.

If Greeks themselves do not trust their own government and their own banks with their money, it is difficult to expect the taxpayers of other countries to do so. Yet that is what the critics of the severity of the conditions imposed for the third Greek bailout seem to expect.

The euro was not imposed on Greece. It was something that Greece joined of its own accord.

The fact that the possibility of Greece leaving the euro was raised by Germany, has been greeted by some as dealing a blow to the euro because it supposedly ended the notion of the euro being “irreversible”.

But nothing in political life is irreversible, even though some things, like the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, did last a very long time indeed. “Irreversibility” was always a legal fiction, and fiction is not a sound basis for an economic policy. 

The euro is a contingent compromise, where members trade some short term losses for greater long term gains. A euro, where rules were easily broken, would not endure.

I agree with those who say that, eventually, some of the Greek debt will have to written off. That is both financially necessary and morally just.

But that can only be contemplated when the Greek political and administrative system has reformed itself, and is capable of benefitting from a write off, and not looking at it as a precedent for a further write offs later on. We are not there yet.

The crucial difficulty seems to be that the Greek state does not work. The fact that Tsipras’ offer of reforms had to be crafted, not by Greek civil servants on their own, but with the help of French officials, tells its own story.

Some complain that elements of the package involve intrusion on Greek “sovereignty”. But a state is only sovereign to the extent that it is capable of performing the functions of a state and of fulfilling the internal and international responsibilities of a state.  I believe Greece needs help in this regard, and it would be good if the World Bank, as well as the IMF, were involved in helping Greece reform its public administration.

Recapitalising the Greek banks will be a major task. Interestingly the biggest exposure to the Greek banks is held by UK banks. The UK is not in the euro, and is not contributing to the Greek bailout, which could be regarded as unfair.

Some argue that the austerity, that Greece is going through to meet its international obligations, is damaging its economic growth prospects. In the short run, this is true. But fuelling temporary growth, by taking on even MORE debts, would not be  an answer. That would weaken longer term growth prospects, because of the additional debt service it  would entail.

The important way of  improving growth prospects is by  generating confidence. If people believe the future will be better, and can borrow money to invest in it, the economy will grow. With renewed confidence, some of the money that Greeks themselves have moved abroad will then come back to Greece. If the bailout terms are fully and quickly implemented, by both Greece and its creditors, that will restore confidence, especially if it is rewarded  by a prospect of some conditional and staged debt write offs.

Meanwhile Greece is in close proximity to the biggest refugee crisis in world history, caused by the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars. More migrants are now arriving in Greece from the Middle East, than are arriving in Italy from North Africa. 65% of the arrivals in Greece are Syrian.

Greece’s neighbour, Turkey, is already providing shelter for 1.8 million Syrian refugees. Meanwhile most Western countries are reluctant to take in any refugees. Greece, because of its geographic position, does not have that luxury.

The European Union should reorientate its Development Aid programmes to help middle income countries, like Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which are facing major refugee inflows, to cope with that huge burden. 

Some EU countries, like Germany and Sweden, are hosting many refugees. But most are keeping their heads down and doing little or nothing.

There should be burden sharing, based on relative income and population. Countries that are receiving the largest proportionate number of refugees , should be getting direct ongoing cash help from those that are receiving the least.

SHOULD THE GREEK VOTERS PAY HEED TO AMERICAN ECONOMISTS?

Paul Krugman, in the “New York Times”, urges the Greeks to vote “No” in the referendum next Sunday. So does Joe Stiglitz, in another article in the “Guardian”. Is this serious advice, or an unhelpful extension to Europe of an ongoing American polemic?

Paul Krugman says the Euro was a “terrible mistake” because he claims it failed to insulate the public finances of the states of the euro zone from bubbles in particular countries, like he says the US system does. In fact, the US only does this to a limited extent, and, unlike the EU, it has no general bailout fund  for states.

If I recall things correctly, our present collapse in confidence originated in the United States, in a housing bubble in a small number of US states, that eventually engulfed the whole world! The US system did not prevent that.

Puerto Rico, a US dependency which is in the dollar zone, has got itself into a Greek style debt trap, without the US monetary union, which is much older and stronger than the EU one, being able to prevent it. 

Krugman says that “most of what you hear about Greek profligacy is false”.

He makes this bizarre claim on the basis that Greece has made cuts and tax increases since 2010. He completely ignores the profligacy, poor tax collection, and the debt accumulation, that went on for decades before that, when Greece erected a completely unsustainable pension regime, on the strength of borrowed money.

He says that, since 2010, the Greek economy has collapsed because of “austerity”.
He fails to outline what the Greeks might have used for money since 2010 if, as he seems to advocate, they had continued with their previous “non austere” spending policies. They would not have been able to borrow the difference on commercial markets. Where would they have got the money? Just because a country is in the euro zone it does not mean it can have an unlimited call on the taxes  or loans of other euro members.

While there is more to do, like euro area wide deposit insurance, the EU has remedied many of the initial design flaws in the euro, something Paul Krugman does not acknowledge.

He says that “even harsher austerity is a dead end”, as if cuts and tax increases were all that the EU has been urging unsuccessfully on the Greeks.

Product and labour market reforms, opening up the professions, better tax collection, and privatisations, have been an important part of the recipe urged on Greece by the EU, and these would greatly improve the allocative efficiency of the Greek economy, and promote growth. Greece needs to move its human resources out of unproductive activities, into areas that will earn money from abroad and the EU reforms will assist that.

Another Nobel Prize winning economist, Joe Stiglitz, in his article in  “Guardian” also calls for a “No” vote, but is more extreme.

He claims the euro zone was ”never a democratic project”. He seems to have completely forgotten that the Maastricht Treaty, which created the legal basis for the euro, was approved by the elected parliaments of every state that is currently a member. It was approved in referenda in several countries, including France and Ireland.

Furthermore each of  the Eurogroup of Finance Ministers, who make all the key decisions, represent democratically elected governments.

Greece was not forced to join the euro, in the conditions, and at the time, that it did. This was a free choice of the Greek government.  Now, governments everywhere would sometimes like to repudiate some decisions of their predecessors, but if that luxury is to be afforded it would destroy the basis for credit and inter state relations.

He makes a more substantial point when he says that a good deal of the money, lent to Greece by the taxpayers of other EU countries and the IMF,  has gone to help them pay debts they owe to private creditors. But he fails to point out that, unlike those of Ireland and Portugal, Greece’s private creditors have been obliged to take a haircut.

It is true that the money from the EU has  been used in part to repay banks money they had put into Greek government bonds. Some of these banks were indeed French and German. But some were from outside the euro zone altogether, including from Professor Stiglitz’s own country and from the UK, in one of whose newspapers he is writing.

Back in the 2010/2012 period, thanks the crisis which started after Lehman Brothers went south, there was a legitimate public interest, a public good, in preventing a run on ANY of these banks. 
There remains a justifiable argument, however, that it was unfair that the taxpayers of a few countries should now be bearing a disproportionate share of the cost of this public good, which the whole world has enjoyed.

Yes, the taxpayers of the rest of the euro zone should, in moral terms, bear more of the burden.

But if that is so, so also should the taxpayers of non euro zone countries like the US and the UK, whose banks were also saved when Ireland, Greece and Portugal got help. 
Why should German taxpayers, whose personal incomes have grown more slowly than elsewhere in Europe, and who face substantial extra costs in the near future due to ageing, be the focus of all the wrath?

But then neither Professor Krugman, nor Professor Stiglitz are writing for German, Slovak, Latvian public opinion.

They are writing in journals, published in countries, whose governments are not being asked to write more and more cheques for a Greek Government, that seems to blame everyone else for home grown problems. 

There is, I believe, an argument for a comprehensive debt conference to consider whether the burdens of dealing with the aftermath of the Lehman collapse, have been fairly distributed between the governments of the world.

But the convening of any such conference, and eligibility for any help from it, should be something that might happen five years from now, and be conditional on growth promoting reforms, and budget balancing, already having been fully implemented by governments seeking debt relief from it. Perhaps a Third Party might put such a proposal forward, as a way of getting out of the terrible situation Greece is bringing upon itself.



POPULISM REACHES ITS LIMITS

Alexis Tsipras
Because of its Classical past as the founder of democracy, Greece was treated more tolerantly, than other countries would have been, when, during the nineteenth century, it defaulted several times on its commercial creditors.

That history created bad habits of mind. Now its creditors are the taxpayers of other countries, who are less tolerant, and less conscious of their intellectual debt to Plato and Socrates.

The present Greek debacle is the result of a clash of political cultures.

On the one hand is the culture of the European Union, where every decision has to be mediated through complex institutions representing 28 different countries, each with its own political culture, and then often has to win the assent of the European Parliament and of an independent European Central Bank. 

Theatrical gestures and moments of brilliant eloquence count for little in this world. Building a good track record, with good civil service staff work to back it up, is what counts in the EU political culture.

EU bailout decisions also have to be approved by the IMF, a global body, most of whose members and clients are far poorer than the Greeks. This creates an additional layer of interests which Greece must try to satisfy, as well as its EU partners.

In this setting, credibility and patience are vital to success. The new Greek government did not have patience, and soon it lost credibility as well.

In stark contrast with what was needed, it seems to me that the Greek Government is made up of people who come from a revolutionary tradition, where it believed that progress will come from a harsh rupture with the past, and whose proponents envisage a nationalist or socialist utopia, once that rupture is complete.

The Greek government are also people who have little or no previous experience of government, and who have thrived politically by agitating against the existing order, without the necessity of explaining how things would work after they had obtained power, and they had to survive and govern in the complex interconnected reality, that is the global economy of today.

That the Greek electorate would elect such people to office is explained by the desperation in to which they had been led by the irresponsible policies pursued by successive Greek governments since the 1980’s, who tried to win the votes of Greeks by promising them a standard of living that was not matched by their productive capacity, and by the mistaken decision to take Greece into the euro before the results of these bad policies had been properly rectified.

The problem is that the activities of the new government made things much worse than they were when they took office.

By creating doubt about whether they would honour the debts incurred by their predecessors, the new government created a crisis of confidence, and this loss of confidence led to a suspension of normal commercial activity. By looking for debt relief, before reforms were implemented they put the cart before the horse.

The underlying problem of Greece is a lack of productivity and export potential, but the Greek government, and to a great extent the EU authorities too, continue to ignore this. Greece’s productivity problem will take years to solve, not least because Greece is an elderly society. The structural reforms urged by the EU will help, because they will clear the clogged arteries of the Greek economy and allow talent to be reallocated to where it can do something productive. But the ageing of Greek society will remain an intractable problem.

As a result of the drama generated by their new Government, Greeks, instead of focussing on ways to invest to make more money, became in recent months obsessed instead with protecting what they already had. Whereas the economy was on a path towards modest growth, when the old government left office, it quickly plunged back into recession as money was withdrawn from the Greek banks, thereby further weakening Greece’s ability to meet its ongoing expenses, and to pay its debts as they fell due.

The timing of the Referendum, AFTER Greece has already run out of money, and on a proposal that has already been withdrawn, could not be worse. It compounds the panic and uncertainty. It is probably in breach of the Greek constitution. Apparently the Greek constitution does not allow referenda on fiscal issues, and the bailout offer contains many elements that are fiscal.

If ever there was a case study that shows how important it is to have political leaders who understand and face up to their responsibilities, and who deal with the world as it is rather than as they might wish it to be, it is to be found in Greece today. The lessons for Ireland are too obvious to require to be spelt out.

I wonder how Paul Krugman and others, who were so free with their advice to the Greeks in the early months of the crisis, are advising the Greeks to vote in the referendum on the 5 July.

WILL EUROPE ALLOW A BANKRUPT UKRAINE TO FALL BACK UNDER RUSSIAN DOMINATION?

Ukraine is on the brink of financial collapse.

It is not able to meet interest payments it is due to make this week. Its GDP fell by 6.8% last year and is liable to fall by an even greater extent this year. Meanwhile it is having to defend itself against a neighbour which guaranteed its frontiers as recently as 1994.

Instead of stepping forward to help Ukraine financially, the EU and the United States are both leaving the job to the IMF. The IMF is offering Ukraine $40 billion whereas the EU says it can only manage $2 billion.

The European Union has already extended forty times as much credit to Greece, as it has given to Ukraine, whose population is four times that of Greece. If this ratio reflects the EU’s real priority, it is unbalanced. 

GDP per head in Greece is, after all, about three times that of Ukraine. Like Greece, Ukraine has a lot to do to create a functioning and efficient legal and administrative system, stamp out corruption, and collect taxes fully and fairly .But Ukraine is having to do this while  recovering  from the effects of a Communist system which was imposed on it from outside since 1919, whereas Greece has been the democratic shaper of its own policies for many years.

Greece is , of course, in the EU and the euro, and Ukraine is not, but both are in Europe, and both aspire to a democratic European future.

Furthermore Ukraine had it borders guaranteed in the Budapest declaration of 1994 by EU countries, including Britain and France, and by Russia and the US,  in return for Ukraine giving up nuclear weapons. 

Despite this, Ukraine was invaded, and portion of its territory annexed, last year by one of its guarantors, Russia, because Ukraine wanted to make a modest cooperation agreement with the EU.

Notwithstanding that, the EU is now being stingy in helping Ukraine in its financial crisis, and is fixated instead on the drama in Athens.

Ukrainians believe they have a European destiny, and are prepared to die for it.

The Russian leadership, on the other hand, believes that Ukraine, with its Russian speaking minority, is in their sphere of influence, and sees a link up of Ukraine with the EU as a form of foreign interference in their backyard. One would have to respond that this view is not in accord with Russia’s guarantee to Ukraine of 1994, nor with international law.

The entire post World War Two European security order rests on acceptance of international law.

Similarly, any prospect of voluntary nuclear disarmament in future must depend on solemn obligations, like the Budapest commitment given to Ukraine in 1994, being seen to be honoured.

In Ukraine’s case, all the EU is expected to do is provide financial help.

But if Ukraine falls, the Russian threat may move on to other countries, with Russian speaking minorities, like Latvia and Estonia, which are NATO members  and  to whom most EU countries (not Ireland) have a solemn Treaty based obligation to provide military help if their  territory is threatened.

Meanwhile the Greek government, while looking for new loans and debt write offs from the EU, is ostentatiously aligning itself to the very country that has invaded Ukraine,  Russia. It is looking for more credit from the EU, without implementing reforms that would generate the long term growth, which would enable those loans to be repaid.

In contrast, the new Ukrainian government is implementing painful reforms to increase the growth potential of its economy, for example by eliminating inefficient consumption subsidies, which have quadrupled gas prices paid by Ukrainian households. Parts of its reform programme are being delayed in its parliament by opposition figures, like Julia Timoshenko, once the darling of the western media and still part of the EPP family to which Fine Gael and the German CDU belong.

Ukraine’s financial situation is now so critical that President Putin believes that all he has to do is sit and wait, and Ukraine will collapse back into Russian control simply because, in the absence of large western credits, it will run out of money. 

If this happens, and if the EU has continues to do little or nothing to stop it beyond talk, that will a huge blow to confidence in the EU’s ability to defend its values and help its friends.  Other countries on Russia’s perimeter will feel they too will have to make a deal with Putin, rather than rely on the EU. 

In Ukraine’s case, European countries do not have a Treaty obligation to give military help . But, in their own interests, they should give generous financial help now, to ensure that a success in Ukraine does not embolden Russia to undermine countries like Latvia and Estonia, which also have Russian speaking minorities, but where most European countries do have a Treaty based military obligations to help.

When questioned in a recent Pew poll, as to whether they would be willing to use force to defend another neighbouring NATO country, that found itself in conflict with Russia, 51% of Italians, 53% of French people and 58% of Germans answered that they would not.

If that frightful dilemma is to be avoided, it would be wise for Europeans to draw the line in Ukraine now, by providing that country with enough financial help to build a properly functioning state, that can pay its way and look after itself, and be capable on its own of resisting intimidation by its big neighbour.


WHAT HAPPENS IF GREECE DEFAULTS? HOW DISHONEST “ANTI AUSTERITY“ RHETORIC MAY LEAD EUROPE TO AN AVOIDABLE DISASTER

If Greece defaults on its debts, and leaves the euro, the effects will be very hard to calculate. 
Nobody really knows what will happen. Nobody even wants to talk about it.
But a very serious precedent will have been established.

That precedent, that of a euro zone country defaulting on its debts and leaving the euro, will eventually place upward pressure on the interest rates charged to small euro zone countries with substantial debts. Financial markets are emotional and erratic and often fail to make distinctions that should be made.

The effect of a Greek default may not, of course, be felt immediately, thanks to quantitative easing, but the underlying precedent will tend to corrode of confidence in government bonds generally and confidence in the irreversibility of the euro, and confidence is the basis for all money. 

Maintaining confidence, and doing what is just and rational in an abstract sense, are not always the same thing.

Just as in the private sector, a risk of not being repaid in full usually leads to a higher interest rate…a risk premium.

For example, if , for legal political or cultural reasons, banks  have difficulty getting hold of properties, given as security for loans that are no longer  being serviced by  borrowers,  they will tend to charge a higher interest rate on such loans. The gap between the rate of interest banks charge, and the rate they pay for funds, will be wider than it would be if they knew they could easily realise their security, if a borrower defaults.

The rules for capital adequacy of banks, set by global banking regulators, have treated government bonds held by banks as risk free, and this has meant that banks buy a lot of government debt. If, thanks to a Greek default, government bonds are no longer risk free, this will call these rules into question. That , in turn, would make government  borrowing more difficult.

The present Greek crisis was not inevitable. It is the result of a decision by Greek voters.

A few months back, it looked as if the Greek economy was about to start growing again, admittedly from a low base. For example, as recently as August 2014, Deutsche Bank forecast that the Greek GDP would grow by 2.2% this year. This was to be almost twice the forecast growth for the euro zone as a whole, and second only to the forecast growth for Ireland of 2.3%, which has proved to be a big underestimate in the Irish case. 

Greece had put in place a lot of structural reforms, under the previous Greek government, more than almost any EU country by some measures. The labour market reforms improved the competitiveness of the Greek economy, but the full benefit of these reforms was not achieved because of cartels protecting some professions and services. The reform programme of the previous government was not a “failure”, but it was delivering results too slowly for an impatient electorate in Greece.

40% of loans in the Greek banking system were non performing, but the banks were not dealing with this. Greece was suffering a brain drain.

That prospect of 2.2% growth in the Greek economy was blown away by the uncertainty caused by the Syriza election victory, and the nationalistic rhetoric and grandstanding that surrounded it. This led to a flight of confidence, and money, from the Greek banking  system and an unwillingness of foreigners to invest in Greece as long as the political uncertainty persisted. It did nothing to slow the brain drain.

The new government threatened to undo the labour market reforms and to make it more difficult for Greek banks to deal with non performing loans.

The  structural reforms, put in place by the previous Greek government, had begun to work, when they were derailed by politics. 

Syriza won office on a false platform which asserted that the previous structural reform programme had been a “failure”. It had not been a failure, it had  brought Greece to the pont where its forecast growth rates for this year were second best in the euro zone. It had simply taken longer to work than it would if international conditions were more favourable, and if it had been extended as vigorously to  the professions, and to tax evasion, as  it had been to employees.

Syriza  convinced Greek voters the “austerity” was a “failure”, without saying what those terms meant in practice, but implying instead that others should pay Greece’s debts for it, as part of some sort of moral obligation the rest of the world had to Greece. This was naive. Greeks forgot that other EU nations have electorates too!

If one is spending more than one is earning, “austerity” is inevitable, sooner or later, unless you can achieve a rate of economic growth that is faster than the growth in your state’s obligations. That was always going to be difficult for an ageing society like Greece, with an under funded  pension system, and a  disproportionate amount of early retirement.

The tragedy is that modern election campaigns have become shouting matches, that do not lend themselves to the sort of informed discussion that would have  led voters to see, in time, the fallacy of policies that imply that one can persistently consume more than one is earning, without eventually facing  “austerity”.

There is some ground for hope. A deal can be reached.  Because of the nature of  its support base, Syriza may have more freedom to tackle tax evasion and  cartels in the professions, than the previous government. This could get Greece back on a growth path, so long as  Syriza does not attempt  to reverse  the reforms  the previous government HAD put in place.

THE LONG CRISIS IN GREECE

As I write, it remains unclear whether Greece will reach an acceptable deal with its creditors, who are mainly other European Governments.

It is important to say that the recession in Greece has been much deeper than expected by those who agreed the original bailout package with Greece in 2010, a 25% fall in output as against a predicted 7% fall. The budgetary adjustments have also been bigger than in any of the other bailout countries.

It must be acknowledged that, when Greece got a bailout from the other Governments and the IMF, the ultimate beneficiaries included banks, not only in Europe but also elsewhere.

These banks had been lending to the Greek Government, long after they should have stopped doing so, and have forced Greece to confront reality. They assumed that, because Greece was in the euro, someone somewhere would ensure they were repaid.
Yes, some the banks,who were thus saved from their errors, were indeed German. But many of the banks who were rescued from their embarrassment were British and American, and the British and American taxpayers have avoided a proportionate exposure to the costs, through the Greek bailout, of saving THEIR banks!

The Euro zone is bearing the main burden, while the others offer free advice.

That said, it would have been in nobody’s interest, for a panic about Greece to have infected banks around the world. Bank credit constitutes 95% of the money we use, and a collapse in confidence in money could have had really devastating global consequences. Without confidence in banks, economic activity would have come to a shuddering halt.

We would have had a crash, rather than just a crisis. Hindsight critics can ignore that now, but it was a real risk then.  

The origins of the Greek problem are very deep and longstanding. For years, Greeks had been consuming more than they were producing, retiring on pension earlier than is normal in other countries, and running an educational system that had few links with the real economy. All these gaps were bridged by borrowing money from foolish investors, who averted their eyes from the profound underlying problems of the Greek economy.

Meanwhile Greece supported a cumbersome and slow courts system, and an equally inefficient system of public administration and of regulating entry to professions. These systems got in the way of growth, because growth needs a capacity to move human and other resources quickly from less, to more profitable activities. Such systems might have been affordable in a very rich country, but Greece never was a rich country. 

Meanwhile Greece failed to develop a broad modern industrial sector. It relied too heavily on tourism and ship building. Greeks made money selling things to each other Greeks, rather than to the rest of the world. 

Greek businesses stayed small, not big enough to become exporters.  Indeed the proportion of micro businesses in Greece is very large, and this sort of business frequently under declares its income for tax purposes. This is part of the reason for poor tax collection in Greece.

There is growth potential in the Greek economy.

A McKinsey study back in 2011 suggested, for example, that Greece could develop medical tourism (it has a large population of dentists).  I met someone recently who was waiting for ages a treatment for tonsillitis in Ireland, who went to Greece, and had the operation done in days. 

McKinsey suggested big scope for Aquaculture and food processing in Greece.
Greece could develop its port infrastructure to provide a regional cargo hub. 

But none of these things can be financed unless Greek business people have access to a healthy banking system.

The Greek banking system is far from healthy. Its capital is tied up in Greek government bonds. The credibility of these bonds has been called into question by the brinkmanship and loose rhetoric of the new Greek government. The uncertainty over whether Greece will still be in euro, in a few months time, also inhibits investment, and nationalistic rhetoric in Germany on that topic has added greatly to that uncertainty.

Greece’s future needs to be underpinned by a credible plan that focuses on private sector led growth, backed by a healthy European banking system, that invests in productive Greek businesses, rather than just in Greek government bonds, as it did in the past.

If that is to happen, it is not just Greece that needs to do a lot of homework, but the entire European Union. The EU needs a real banking union that allows banks to lend across borders to good projects wherever they are found in the euro zone. This needs common EU legislation on debt collection, collateral and the like.

The fact that Greek, Irish, Portuguese and Spanish taxpayers have borne large burdens to recapitalise their banks, or have undertaken new debts, as part of a project to sustain the global banking system, also needs to be recognised by the rest of the world

This cannot unfortunately be done straight away. The problems that gave rise to the crisis must be understood, and fixed, first. 

The Greek election result would not lead one to believe that Greeks understand the source of their problems. And the credence that many voters elsewhere give to rhetoric that suggests that being “against austerity” constitutes an implementable policy, in a world of free capital movement, suggests that many do not understand what went wrong or what can realistically be done about it.

But ultimately there must be an honest attempt to find a fair settlement of these legacy issues.

A Global Debt Conference, some time before 2022, when Greece has to make huge repayments, should be considered.  It could be sponsored by the IMF, and might negotiate debt relief on the basis of the extent to which countries have, in the seven years between 2015 and 2022, implemented growth promoting reforms and achieved primary surpluses on their current budgets, taking account of the demography and the tax raising potential of each country.

THE EURO CRISIS – WHERE WILL IT VISIT NEXT?

The bailout of Spain’s banks over the past weekend was necessary, but it may not be sufficient.
Spanish banks are carrying a lot of bad debt from the construction bubble there. The banks have not properly acknowledged this debt in their books, and this has sapped investor confidence in them.
House prices in Spain have not adjusted downwards as much as they have in Ireland, and Spanish competitiveness has not improved as much as Irelands’ has. Unit labour costs remain high, although Spanish exports have been fairly buoyant.
The new Spanish Government has introduced sweeping labour market reforms that will improve Spanish growth potential in the next few years, but that is not immediate enough to kick start the Spanish economy today. The true financial position of many Spanish regional governments is obscure, and that saps confidence too.
Greece, despite all the austerity, still has a big balance of payments deficit. In other words, Greeks are buying more abroad than they are selling there. Until that is tackled, nobody will want to lend to Greece. It seems Greek banks are using cheap ECB money to lend to some Greek consumers who are spending it abroad.
Meanwhile, other Greeks have experienced big wage cuts, but, because the distribution system in Greece is riddled with monopolies and restrictive practices, Greek prices have not come down along with wages. This is why many Greeks are angry.
It is not so much that Greece has had too much austerity, it is that it has had the austerity in the wrong places. So far, that problem has only been tackled on paper, because the Greek system of public administration is weak.
Portuguese banks have a big exposure to a possible Greek collapse. Total Portuguese exposure to Greek debt comes to 7% of Portuguese GDP, as against a comparable exposure of 5% for France, 4% for Germany, and 2% for Ireland.  Relative unit labour costs in Portugal have hardly come down at all since 2007, whereas they have come down substantially in Ireland and Greece. All this makes Portugal particularly vulnerable to a loss of confidence that might come, if Greece defaults again.
The recent decline in voter confidence in the government of Mario Monti  in Italy is also a big worry. His reform programme is only beginning to take effect, and the fear has to be of a return to populist politics, of a kind that would stop  long overdue action Monti is taking  to clear the arteries of the Italian economy, and lift its growth potential .
Two issues, growth potential and   political capacity to implement decisions, are at the centre of our present dilemma.
The OECD has done some calculations on the growth potential of various countries from 2016 to 2025, making assumptions based on growth or decline in the working age population and likely productivity growth. These estimates show huge differences between euro area countries. OECD thinks Ireland has a growth potential in that period of 2.7% per year, whereas Germany only has a  growth potential of  1.2%!  This is explained by the likely decline in Germany’s working age population.
Interestingly, Spain has a growth potential of 2.3%, whereas Greece and the Netherlands are deemed to have a potential of just 1.4%, and Italy 1.5%, almost as low as Germany. These figures, if valid, may explain why Germany is emphasising productivity and is unwilling to underwrite the debts of other countries, unless and until it is first fully convinced that those countries will achieve or, better still, improve their growth potential.
These figures also imply that some of the countries receiving help today, might be  the ones having to help others in  15 years time! They should also be taken into account by  the outsiders who are offering so much  self interested free advice to Germany
The other part of the problem is capacity to make and implement decisions at EU level. A currency depends on confidence, and confidence comes from knowing that  quick action can be taken in a crisis.
Although the European Union has done a lot, in the past three years ,to remedy the original design flaws in the euro, it still has a very long way to go, and the markets may not wait another three years.
For example, a banking union in the euro zone would need strong capacity to close down banks in individual countries, to require agreed bail ins by bondholders, as well as the provision of funds to guarantee depositors. The difficulty is that the decision making system of the European Union is not designed to make, and implement, complex and controversial decisions like this, quickly.
The EU system is designed for deliberative and consensual legislation, not speedy crisis management.
To make decisions, the EU has to bring along countries that are in the euro, countries that are not yet in the euro, and also countries that never want to be in the euro at all but want to share in all the benefits of the single market.
If an unforeseen problem comes up, the EU has to amend its treaties, and that requires ratification in 27 countries (and a referendum in at least one of them!). 
The EU has to cope with a decision making process that emphasises the national, over the collective European, interest.
Not only is the Council of Ministers structured to favour the pursuit of national interest,  even the European Parliament still allocates its own big jobs on the basis of national quotas, something it would be quick to condemn if it happened anywhere else in Europe!
Increasingly, because no European leader, like the President of the Commission, has  a direct mandate from the  European people, the really important decisions are being made by the 27 heads of Government, who each  do have such democratic mandates in their own countries.
But each of these women and men are “part time Europeans”, so to speak. Their day job is running their own countries (and getting re elected if they can). They meet less frequently together than national cabinets do, and when they do meet, there are 27 of them in the room.  That makes it difficult to get into the depths of any question, or to look beyond the immediate problem.
I believe the crisis is of a seriousness that  it requires us to step outside the  conventional ways of thinking, and  tackle the economic and political problems of Europe together in one package. If necessary, leaders should continue meeting until they have worked out a global blueprint, covering the present banking crisis, the Greek issue, structural reforms to lift growth potential, and enhancing democratic decision implementation.  Sometimes, the more issues are in the mix, the easier it becomes to find balancing compromises.
We do not have much time, and we need to remember that we could lose, in five months, something it took over 50 years to create.

Interview by Dermot Murnaghan for Sky News

ANY QUOTES USED MUST BE ATTRIBUTED TO MURNAGHAN, SKY NEWS
DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Now then, on Thursday the people of Ireland will be offered a choice to accept or reject stricter European plans for stricter budget disciplines. According to the latest polls the yes campaign is in the lead but opponents say the plans have no social or economic merit. Well joining me now from just outside Dublin is the former Prime Minister of Ireland, John Bruton, a very good morning to you Mr Bruton. Does Ireland feel the weight of European responsibility lying on its shoulders? If it should vote no, the implications for the euro could be dire.
JOHN BRUTON: Not really. In this case it will be enough for 12 of the 17 countries of the eurozone to vote yes to the Fiscal Compact for it to come in to effect so unless previous EU treaties, Ireland is not essential. On the other hand I think it is in Ireland’s interests to vote yes because that would give us the possibility of applying for funds from the European Civility Mechanism if we need them. It would also incorporate into our own domestic rules, better balanced budget controls on the government, to prevent governments – particularly in boom times – spending money that they ought not to spend and borrowing money that they ought not to borrow. The controls contained in this document are mainly to do with internal controls in Ireland rather than EU controls which exist anyway and they will I think be particularly applicable in boom times rather than in times of difficulty when you have to cut back anyway because you can’t borrow the money.
DM: The poll I referred to also tells us something interesting about Irish political life in that it seems on this issue to be dividing more than it has done in the past along class lines in that those more tending to vote no are those suffering most from austerity and recession, those at the bottom of the economic pile.
JB: I think that’s true, the polls seem to suggest that that is the case although in the last week, I think among people of the less well-off socio-economic group there has been an increase in the yes support in that camp because I think they realise that if we have to go for a second bail out, that would be a lot of it to support social welfare and healthcare schemes that benefit the less well-off people more than they benefit other people and obviously if we were cut off from funds, the people who would be first to suffer would be the least well-off. I think that message is beginning to percolate right across the community at this point.
DM: Does that tell us that those people minded, and I see on third of the electorate is still undecided, those people minded to vote no are stick of this tag that has been hung round Ireland’s neck of the poster boy for austerity, they may be beginning to feel that the Greeks are right and say let’s not take it any more, it doesn’t have to be this way?
JB: Well I think the truth of the matter is Ireland is doing well not because of austerity but in spite of austerity. We are doing well because we have a very big foreign direct investment base in this country, we are the leading attractor of foreign investment in the world, certainly in Europe, and that’s keeping our economy healthy. I think that that is something that depends very much on us being part of the European project, people invest here from America, from China, from other countries like that, because we are a fully subscribed member of the European Union. If we were to cast in doubt our commitment to the disciplines of the European Union and the euro, that would have an adverse effect on foreign direct investment which would have an immediate adverse effect on interest rates and on job creation here in this country
DM: Well leaving aside the referendum there, if Greece should exit the euro or be forced out of the euro, it’s said that this could spark a domino effect. Do you think that Ireland could be ejected from the euro or is it irrevocable, its membership?
JB: Well, legally it is not possible to eject a country from the euro. A country might decide that it had to leave but I don’t think it’s likely that Greece will leave in the end because the effects on Greece would be so enormous, there would be an immediate four percentage point drop in the Greek gross domestic product, on top of all the drops that have occurred already, in the immediate effect of their leaving. If that were to lead to a break-up of the eurozone, you could have up to a twelve percent drop in income right across the eurozone, with the biggest sufferers actually not even being Greece but being Germany and France and, of course, Ireland. So I think keeping the eurozone together is a very, very high priority but clearly you have got to do that on a basis that you’re not simply giving money that is being poured down a black hole which never will come up again, you’ve got to have some controls or guarantees both in European law and in domestic law and what the fiscal compact treaty does is insist that we put it into our domestic law as well as relying on European controls which are there already under existing treaties.
DM: Just briefly, do you have any sympathy with people, maybe just to cause mischief, who have been saying in Ireland maybe you would have been better staying linked to sterling as you were forty years or so ago?
JB: Well at that time we had a situation where interest rate policy was determined in London without any Irish input and we went up and down with the fortunes of whatever suited the British economy as decided by people in Britain over which we had no say. In the eurozone we are one of 17 countries therefore we don’t determine the policy but we do have a say, we have representation in the European Central Bank, representation in the European Commission, in the European Parliament so we have more control, not complete control but more control of our economic future as a member of the eurozone than we would have if we were simply to unilaterally link ourselves to sterling and accept whatever was decided in London.
DM: Okay, Mr Bruton, thank you very much indeed for your time. John Bruton there with his thoughts on the referendum.

FRANCOIS HOLLANDE’S VICTORY- WHAT DOES IT TELL US ABOUT FRANCE ?

The result of the French Presidential election was no great surprise in a way.

In fact, when one considers that  most of his first round competitors had  endorsed Hollande,  outgoing  President Sarkozy did  well to get  48%,  as against the mere  27% he had  got in  the first round.

The  Centrist Bayrou, and the Left Front candidate Melenchon, had both explicitly endorsed Hollande, and  the National Front  candidate  Marine  le Pen, most of  whose  supporters were otherwise trending in Sarkozy’s favour,    said she was  going to  vote for nobody  .

The breakdown of the vote is interesting .

Sarkozy did best in a Northern  block of territory  from Normandy over to  the German  border in Strasbourg, and  Hollande did best in Paris, and in the  rest of France, apart from the  Riviera.

Unlike the US, where women  are more for Obama, and men more for Romney, the two candidates in France got more or less the same level of  support from men as from women.

Those with higher educational qualifications voted more for Sarkozy ( 54%/46%). So also  did those who were financially better off.

Employees were  54/46 in favour of Hollande, whereas  business and self employed were  58/42 for Sarkozy.

AGE GROUPS VOTED DIFFERENTLY

The age distribution of support was most marked.

Those under  24 were  59/41 for Hollande.   
The 25 to 34  and the 50 to 59 age groups were  for Hollande.

But the 35 to 49 age group, and the over 60s, favoured Sarkozy.

SO DID PEOPLE OF VARYING RELIGIOUS VIEWS

The most remarkable cleavage of all was on the index of religious practice.

Practising Catholics were 73/27 for Sarkozy.

Protestants were 61/39 for Sarkozy.

But those who said they had no religion were 66/34 for Hollande.

Muslims supported Hollande by a margin of  93 to 7!   Sarkozy’s anti immigrant  rhetoric and his talk  about strengthening borders may have  won him  support from elderly voters, but it  may make it difficult for his party to win Muslim votes in future elections and they are a very important  voting bloc in France.

HOLLANDE IS ALSO COMMITTED TO AUSTERITY

Some may think that the election of Hollande will mean an end to so called austerity policies in France.  In fact ,he  gave that impression himself during the campaign. Outside France, some people  have seized on Hollande’s campaign rhetoric as a sign that   borrowing does not have to be reduced, and  budgets do not have to be balanced. They are mistaken.

In fact, if those who voted for him read his programme closely they would see that he is committed   to getting the French budget deficit down to  3% of GDP by  2013, and to eliminating it altogether by  2017.  That simply  cannot be done without austerity, at least  in France itself.

Of course a little less austerity  IN GERMANY  might help achieve that goal, if it meant that more Germans bought French goods, or took their holidays in France.  But even that is not guaranteed.

France’s big problem is a poor export performance. Whereas Spanish manufactured  exports are at 108% of the level they were at in  1999, French  exports are now   at only 72% of their  1999 level.  This is not, it seems , because French wages are too high, but rather that French companies have not innovated enough.

Meanwhile the French national debt is at its highest level ever, apart from the peaks it reached after the two world wars.

Hollande is committed to increasing the corporation tax on big companies to 35%, and reducing the tax on small companies to 15%. This would create and incentive to companies to stay small, which may not help the French export effort much.

He is also committed to employing more teachers. This will be difficult to reconcile with his plans to eliminate the budget deficit.

MEANWHILE HE HAS TO FIGHT ANOTHER ELECTION………

The immediate task facing President Hollande is that of winning a majority in the National Assembly. This may mean that he will avoid facing really difficult choices until June, when the Assembly elections are due, and  stay in campaign mode until then.

His difficulty is that the financial markets may not give him the  space in which to do that.  If the markets feel that, in the medium term, the French budget  deficit is going to rise faster than that of Germany, interest rates on French bonds will rise faster than those on German bonds . That could create problems for the euro, something to which President Hollande is committed.   

AND DEAL WITH THE PROBLEM OF GREECE

The Greek election result poses an even more immediate problem.

Greeks favour staying in the euro, but do not favour the conditions on which they  can access funds provided by the taxpayers of  other euro area  countries.

These conditions involve reforming wage agreements, cutting pensions ,improving tax collection, and  cutting the cost of  pharmaceuticals used in the health service. There is also a difficulty that Greece has  not done all the things it  promised, like eliminating supplementary pensions and getting rid of off budget funds.

The trouble is that things are now so bad in Greece, that many Greek voters convinced themselves that they cannot not get worse, and thus  voted for parties that want to reject the conditions on which money is  currently being lent to Greece to  keep its  government functioning.

Unfortunately, things can get much worse in Greece, even than they are now, if taxpayers in other countries decline to provide more funds.   A collapse in the banking system, and a disorderly exit from the euro, would be worse than anything Greece has experienced  so far.

President Hollande, as a new leader, with a democratic mandate, has a capacity to persuade  the Greek people to see sense, to a degree that may not be open to other European leaders, including Chancellor Merkel. President Hollande can  be persuasive in Greece because

France favoured Greek entry to the euro.

France never occupied Greece.

French banks have lent to Greece in the past.

Francois Hollande is a man of the left.

All these  things give him an authority  to speak to the Greek people,  at a critical moment  for them, and for Europe.

GERMANY BASHING IS BESIDE THE POINT……….. IT IS TIME TO FACE THE REAL CHOICES

We read that there is a severe outbreak of anti German feeling in Greece.Under the second EU/IMF bailout, Greece is being lent extra money  at interest rates  far below those at which it could borrow commercially, and in the meantime a portion of its existing debts are being written off. 
But  Germany is being blamed for the  unwillingness of the EU and the IMF  to sign off on this  second bailout , without , what some Greeks see as,  humiliatingly detailed assurances that
  • the money will be used properly ,
  • Greece will adopt specified policies to cut back state spending and raise taxes and that it will
  •  liberalise its economy, so that it can grow fast enough to be able to repay the extra money it is now to be lent.

The trouble is that Greece has a poor record in presenting honest accounts, and in implementing in practice, changes it has agreed to in principle. The extra assurances are being sought so that more good money is not poured down a black hole along with the debts that are now being partially written off.
Without this loan, Greece would default and it would leave the euro.
In fact, what Germany is really doing is defending the interests of savers, including Greek savers, from what would happen, if Greece defaulted and left the euro. If Greece left the euro, its banks would collapse, and Greeks would see their savings, whether   in the form of bank deposit accounts, life assurance policies, or claims on pension funds, disappear.

THE CHOICE FOR GREECE IS BETWEEN PLANNED AUSTERITY, AND SUDDEN INDISCRIMINATE, AUSTERITY

 
Some argue that “austerity” is a mistake, because the cuts in spending and tax increases dampen confidence so much that the economy stops growing. In the short term, this is true.  But those who criticise on that basis,  have no realistic alternatives to offer.
Where can Greece get the money on better terms than it is getting from the EU/IMF?  
 Nowhere.
There really is no Keynesian alternative for Greece.   The Greek economy is too elderly, too inward looking and too riddled with restrictive practices, to benefit from a Keynesian stimulus, even if someone could be found to finance it. Greece must modernise first. The EU/IMF programme gives it some breathing space (perhaps too little) in which to do that.
Keynesian economics might have been relevant in the  1930s, when the European  population was much younger and could respond to an economic stimulus.  Europeans today are much older, many are retired, and their priority is saving for their old age, rather than going out shopping in response to a boost in government spending. It is not going to get easier. The age dependency ratio in the EU in 2007 was  25%, by 2050 it will be 50% !   What people are looking for now, is stability.

 Greece faces an alternative of two forms of austerity
  • austerity through  planned  cuts and tax increases under the EU/IMF programme or
  • austerity through indiscriminate inflation, of the kind that would  occur, if Greece  left the euro and devalued.
One of Greece’s problems is that it finds it very difficult to reduce wages, which is one of the many things it needs to do if it is to make its exports more competitive. Wage setting is highly regulated in Greece. That is why some favour Greece leaving the euro and allowing devaluation and inflation to cut the real value of Greek wages, and thus  regain competitiveness.  Inflation is the politically easy way to impose wage cuts, but the effect on living standards is at least as bad as cutting the wage rate, and much harder to control.
 But the price of this inflation/devaluation option would be high.  If Greece left the euro, its banks would collapse and the savings of ordinary Greeks, who were patriotic enough to leave their money in Greek banks, would disappear.  Inflation is hard to keep in check once it starts, and Greece also lacks big export industries ready to boost exports quickly on the back of a devaluation.

THE REAL POLITICAL DIVIDE………SAVERS VERSUS BORROWERS
 
It is true that current EU policies are favouring savers over borrowers.    This is so because the ECB, unlike the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, is not willing to engage in “quantitative easing” ,printing money indiscriminately, to revive the economy temporarily.
ECB refuses to print euros without limit, and refuses to use them to buy Greek bonds without conditions. It refuses to do so because that would lead to inflation, and to a devaluation of euro. The more euros that are printed the less the euro will be worth.  That, of course, might suit borrowers, because the euros they would using to pay back their debts at the end of their loan, would then be worth less,  than the euros they borrowed in the first place.
 
But that approach would be bad for savers, who would see the purchasing power of their savings disappear.
 
The real political divide in our societies today, is not between Greeks and Germans, or between the profligate Mediterranean nations and the thrifty northerners.
It is between savers, who do not want their savings devalued or confiscated, and borrowers, who would like to be allowed to pay back less than they owe.

“ORDINARY PEOPLE”, SOMETIMES THE SAME PEOPLE, ARE ON BOTH SIDES OF THIS DIVIDE

But if borrowers pay back less than they owe, someone somewhere else has to take the hit.
If  borrowers are helped by having  their debts being  written off, or having  their debts  are  devalued by inflation, someone else will lose.
Who would lose? 

  1. The losers would include taxpayers, who now own  many of the banks, and who would  see the value of those banks go down
  2. Other losers would be pension funds and insurance companies who own bank shares, and the people who rely on these pension funds and insurance companies to pay their pensions, or insure them against risk.
  3. Yet other losers would be   the people who have deposits in banks, who would see the value of those deposits reduced by inflation, and who could even lose those deposits if the bank collapsed. 
The challenge we face is that of devising an economic policy that acknowledges that there are ”ordinary” decent  people on both sides of this divide.
We also need to acknowledge that no one will be willing to lend any European Governments money any more unless they face up to realities about the cost of ageing societies that will  grow steadily everywhere over the next twenty years.
Greeks bashing Germans, or all of us bashing bankers, may give emotional satisfaction, but it will not pay our bills.
 
We need to think things through , rather than emote. We  need to strike a balance between debt relief, and protecting the savings we need to prepare ourselves for  a time when, instead of four,  there   will only two people at work,   for every one  that is  one too old to work

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)