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Reform or Perish

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

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  1. Patrick VB
    June 19, 2015 at 11:49 am

    Hello Francesco,
    You, as well as Simon Wren-Lewis, Paul Krugman, Frances Coppola, Ashoka Mody and many others have made these points repeatedly. However, it seems that EU finance ministers do not want to discuss debt writedowns or “reprofilings” no matter the outcome, as this could set a precedent for Spain, Portugal, Italy, in the event more “Leftist” governments took power in those countries and also began to ask for less austerity or debt relief (by the way, hope everyone has noticed Italy’s debt ratio… given nominal Italian GDP growth trend, I’d say it’s starting to look a bit unsustainable…). My best guess on how this plays out: no new “Programme” between Greece and the “Institutions” any time soon, selective default as of July, ECB pulls the plug on Greek ELA, a “Credit Event” is declared, Greek financial system shuts down, Greek fiscal position worsens considerably again, Debt/GDP ratio spikes again, and finally, forced Grexit by year-end so that an autonomous Greek Central Bank (issuing its own currency) can begin to stabilise/rebuild the Greek financial system. All of this crucially depends on the ECB’s Governing Council… which decides by 2/3 majority of members, who are more or less designated by EU member states and are very likely to adopt the official positions of their countries’ Finance Ministers and so to decide not to play their role of defenders the the integrity/unity of the euro area financial system…
    Patrick VB

  2. nemobis
    June 24, 2015 at 9:56 am

    Social spending! So, in the end SPD is getting something done, they’re not just puppets? 🙂

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