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It’s the Politics, Stupid!

June 27, 2015 22 comments

Update: 6/30:  A very interesting piece by BrankoMilanovic, made the same point before me

I have been silent on Greece, because scores of excellent economists from all sides commented at length and in real time on the developments of negotiation, and most has been said.

But last week has transformed in certainty what had been a fear since the beginning. The troika, backed by the quasi totality of EU governments, were not interested in finding a solution that would allow Greece to recover while embarking in a fiscally sustainable path. No, they were interested in a complete and public defeat of the “radical” Greek government.

The negotiation has not been one. The two sides were very far in January, as it is and it should be, if two radically different views about the engines of growth confront each other. Syriza wanted the end of austerity, that was much harsher on the country than expected, while failing to bring the promised benefits, even in terms of public finances’ sustainability. And it wanted the burden of debt to be lifted The troika wanted get its money back (well, not all of it; the IMF has always been open to debt restructuring), and more of the policies imposed to Greece since 2010, because, well, “eventually they will work”. (no need for me to remind with whom I have been siding).

But there was a common ground that, had the negotiation been real, could have allowed to reach an agreement, in just a few weeks of discussion. Both sides agreed that the Greek economy is broken, and that it needs radical reform. While Syriza focused on reorganisation of the State, on putting together a functioning tax collection system, at closing inefficiency loopholes, the troika demands were more “classic” and somewhat ideological: pension cuts, labour market reform, and the like. A continuation of the memorandum, in fact.

If we look at the economics of it, Sequencing is crucial: implementing structural reforms in bad times, when the economy is not able to absorb the short run costs of such reforms, imposes excessive disruption and risks hampering the potential long run benefits. This is why the joint implementation of austerity and structural reforms is particularly pernicious. Their short run contractionary effects reinforce each other and may be self-defeating, leading to no improvement in productivity or in public finances’ health. The dire state of Greece’s economy stands as a reminder that such an outcome is all but impossible. Troika reforms and cuts to public spending were doomed to fail since the beginning.

What happened since then? Well, contrary to what is heard in European circles, most of the concessions came from the Greek government. On retirement age, on the size of budget surplus (yes, the Greek government gave up its intention to stop austerity, and just obtained to soften it), on VAT, on privatizations, we are today much closer to the Troika initial positions than to the initial Greek position. Much closer.

The point that the Greek government made repeatedly is that some reforms, like improving the tax collection capacity, actually demanded an increase of resources, and hence of public spending. Reforms need to be disconnected from austerity, to maximize their chance to work.  Syriza, precisely like the Papandreou government in 2010 asked for time and possibly money. It got neither.

Tsipras had only two red lines it would and it could not cross: Trying to increase taxes on the rich (most notably large corporations), and not agreeing to further cuts to low pensions. if he crossed those lines, he would become virtually indistinguishable from Samaras and from the policies that led Greece to be a broken State.

What the past week made clear is that this, and only this was the objective of the creditors. This has been since the beginning about politics. Creditors cannot afford that an alternative to policies followed since 2010 in Greece and in the rest of the Eurozone materializes.

Austerity and structural reforms need to be the only way to go. Otherwise people could start asking questions; a risk you don’t want to run a few months before Spanish elections. Syriza needed to be made an example. You cannot  survive in Europe, if you don’t embrace the Brussels-Berlin Consensus. Tsipras, like Papandreou, was left with the only option too ask for the Greek people’s opinion, because there has been no negotiation, just a huge smoke screen. Those of us who were discussing pros and cons of the different options on the table, well, we were wasting our time.

And if Greece needs to go down to prove it, so be it. If we transform the euro in a club in which countries come and go, so be it.

The darkest moment for the EU.

@fsaraceno

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Reform or Perish

June 19, 2015 2 comments

Very busy period. Plus, it is kind of tiresome to comment daily ups and downs of the negotiation between Greece and the Troika Institutions.

But as yesterday we made another step towards Grexit, it struck me how close the two sides are on the most controversial issue, primary surplus. Greece conceded to the creditors’ demand of a 1% surplus in 2015, and there still is a difference on the target for 2016, of about 0.5% (around 900 millions). Just look at how often most countries, not just Greece, respected their targets in the past, and you’ll understand how this does not look like a difference impossible to bridge.

The remaining issue is reforms. Creditors argue that Greece cannot be trusted in its commitment to reform. After all, they cheated so often in the past… In particular, creditors point at one of Syriza’s red lines, the refusal to touch pension reforms, as proof that the country is structurally incapable of reform. And here is the proof, the percentage of GDP that crisis countries spent in welfare::

2015_06_Reforms_Greece_1

I took total social expenditure that bundles together pensions, expenditure for supporting families, labour market policies, and so on and so forth. All these expenditure that, according to the Berlin View, choke the animal spirits of the economy, and kill productivity.

Well, Greece does not do much worse than its fellow crisis economies, but it is true that it is hard to detect a downward trend. The reform effort was not very strong, and certaiinly not adapted to an economy undergoing such a terrible crisis. The very fact that after four years of adjustment program the country spends 24% of its GDP in social protection, is a proof that it cannot be trusted.This is just proof that, once more, the Greek made fun of their fellow Europeans, and that they want us to pay for their pensions.

Hold on. Did I just say “terrible crisis”? What was that story of ratios, denominators and numerators? The ratio is today at the same level as 2009. But what about actual expenditure? There is a vary simple way to check for this. Multiply each of the lines above for the value of GDP. Here is what you get (normalized at 2009=100, as country sizes are too different):

2015_06_Reforms_Greece_2

The picture looks quite different, does it? Greece, whose crisis was significantly worse than for the other countries, slashed social expenditure by 25% in 5 years (I know, I know, it is current expenditure. I am too busy to deflate the figure. But I challenge you to prove that things would be substantially different). Now, just in case you had not noticed, social expenditure has an important role as an automatic stabilizer: It supports incomes, thus making hardship more bearable, and lying the foundations for the recovery. In a crisis the line should go up, not down. This picture is yet another illustration of the Greek tragedy, and of the stupidity of the policies that the Troika insists on imposing. By the way, notice how expenditure increased from 2005 to 2009, in response to the global financial crisis. A further proof that sensible policies were implemented in the early phase of the crisis, and that we went berserk only in the second phase.

Ah, and of course virtuous Germany, the model we should all follow, is the black line. Do what I say…

One may object that focusing on expenditure is misleading. There is more than expenditure in assessing the burden of the welfare state on the economy. While Greece slashed spending, its welfare state did not become any better; its capacity to collect taxes did not improve, that its inefficient public administration and its crony capitalism are stronger than ever. Yes, somebody may object all that. That someone is Yanis Varoufakis, who is demanding precisely this: stop asking that Greece slashes spending, and lift the financial constraint that prevents any meaningful medium term reform effort. Reform is not just cutting expenditure. Reform is reorganization of the administrative machine, elimination of wasteful programs, redesigning of incentives. All that is a billion times harder to do for a government that spends all its energies finding money to pay its debt.

Real reform is a medium term objective that needs time, and sometimes resources. In a sentence, reform should stop being associated with austerity.

But hey, I am no finance minister. Just sayin’…

@fsaraceno