Tag Archives: Greek default

PSI: Gift horse or Trojan horse?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Given that Greece struggled for weeks to find just a few billion euros in savings to convince its eurozone partners to grant a second bailout, you’d have thought the wiping out of some 100 billion euros from the country’s debt pile — the largest restructuring the world has seen — would have been greeted with the world’s largest collective sigh of relief. It wasn’t.

The lack of high-fiving and back-slapping on the streets of Athens does not mean the bond swap should be dismissed. After all, it’s perhaps the first time in this crisis that all parties involved accepted that Greece can’t pay its debts and that they needed to do something practical about it.

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ELA: Easy as ABC?

There was an unusual sense of calm among eurozone leaders at last week’s summit in Brussels. The pain from the constant headache of the debt crisis seemed to have been dulled by a 1-trillion-euro aspirin. The European Central Bank’s decision last week to launch a second round of longer-term refinancing operations (LTRO), with eurozone banks borrowing more than 500 billion euros to top up their liquidity, appears to have calmed the markets and politicians. So much so that French President Nicolas Sarkozy essentially declared the crisis to be over.

Putting aside the questionable enthusiasm of a president seeking a second term in upcoming elections, the December LTRO, when the ECB also lent more than 500 billion euros, and last week’s liquidity operation have at the very worst bought the eurozone some time. Some of the LTRO money was spent by the banks on snapping up their government’s bonds, which has led to yields dropping for countries like Italy and Spain, which were facing unsustainable borrowing costs.

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Debating whether Greece should remain in the euro, while we still can

“I don’t want to hear your life story when you ask a question,” BBC presenter and debate moderator Zeinab Badawi warned the large audience at the Hellenic Cosmos theater in Athens on Tuesday night before the cameras started rolling for one of the most interesting discussions the city is likely to host this year. It was certainly not a night for personal tales. This was about the story of a country and its dramatic fall from grace and economic stability.

The subject of the debate – organized by Intelligence Squared – was whether Greece should remain in the euro or return to the drachma. What exquisite timing that the debate should take place on the same day the Eurogroup agreed on a new bailout for Greece, one which some think will be enough to keep the country in the single currency and others believe is bound to drive Greeks back to the drachma.

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Hard choices for the hard left

Much has been made recently of the rise of the so-called “hard left” in Greek politics. The most recent poll by Public Issue for Kathimerini newspaper put the combined support for the three leftist parties at 42.5 percent. This is indeed impressive. It’s indicative of the growing resentment at the successive waves of austerity that have left most Greeks foundering, and of the hapless handling of an admittedly complicated situation by the government.

What it does not herald, though (at least for now), is a united front against the EU-IMF loan agreement, or memorandum. The Communist Party (KKE) will not cooperate with any of the other parties and whether it receives 8, 12 or 20 percent of the vote is almost irrelevant. Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras has made some less-than-vigorous attempts to bridge the gaps between the three but his efforts appear dead in the water.

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Et tu, Obama?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Having seen the caliber of some of the Republican Party’s presidential candidates, it’s hard not to want with every fiber in your body for Barack Obama to succeed during his first term in the White House. But this week, thanks to the comments he made aboutGreeceafter meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it was difficult not to feel respect for the American leader slipping away.

The headlines after the two politicians held their news conference inWashingtonrevolved around Obama and Merkel’s warning that the Greek debt crisis could bring the world economy to its knees if it’s not tackled properly. “America’s economic growth depends on a sensible resolution of this issue,” said Obama. “It would be disastrous for us to see an uncontrolled spiral and default inEuropebecause that could trigger a whole range of other events.”

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Win or lose?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

When Greece lines up against Argentina at the World Cup in South Africa on Tuesday, the two sides will not appear to have much in common. Argentina, a squad packed with some of the planet’s best soccer talents, will be wondering whether it can make it to the final. Greece, a squad of ageing tryers running short of ideas, will probably be wondering what time their flight home is.

But beneath the surface, there is plenty that links these two teams. They both represent countries that have experienced economic meltdowns. Both have suffered the ignominy of being ridiculed for their handling of public finances. Both have had trouble convincing financial markets of their credibility. Both peoples have had to endure the consequences of these failures.

The similarities do not end there. Before defaulting on almost $100 billion of debt in 2001, Argentina had tied its currency to the dollar for 10 years – almost as long as Greece has been a member of the eurozone. Buenos Aires also relied on loans from the International Monetary Fund, paying a rate of 6 percent – almost as high as the one Greece is paying for its bailout package. And, despite Buenos Aires adopting austerity measures in 2001, the IMF pulled out of the South American country, triggering a default and devaluation of the peso.

“The circumstances leading to the Greek and Argentinean crises were similar – two countries with a great reputation that did not see the consequences of their excessive expansion and who counted on continued external support,” Claudio Loser, a Senior Fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based forum for opinion leaders, told Athens Plus

Argentina once had an economy that was as dynamic and successful as Diego Maradona, the country’s former star midfielder who now coaches the national side. But like Maradona, who suffered from drug abuse, health issues, money problems and general erratic behaviour, the Argentinean economy hit a brick wall in 2001. Greece always craved a Maradona-like economy. The good news is that it finally got it. The bad news is that it’s the fat, wheezy and unruly Maradona, not the nimble world-beater.

So, with talk of default and exit from the single currency rife in the Athens air. Is there anything that Greece can learn from Argentina? Fernando Navajas, the chief economist and director of the Buenos Aires-based FIEL think-tank believes the best advice for Greece is to be more cohesive and organized than Argentina. “I am not saying that devaluation and default could have easily been avoided but one could have minimized the costs by some collective action on the political side coupled with a professional approach to crisis management,” he told Athens Plus. “Argentina did just the opposite on both fronts. Instead of minimizing, it maximized the cost of the crisis.”

Argentina’s disorderly retreat meant that millions of people lost their savings overnight and the value of property crashed, bringing people out onto the streets in daily protests. More than 20 people lost their lives in riots. It’s no wonder that Argentineans are cautious when they hear economists recommending that Greece leave the euro and devalue the drachma.

“Do not be fooled by a sorcerer’s apprentice that tells you the Argentinean case is a good recipe for Greece,” says Navajas. “This is particularly true in the case of magic formulas that involve asymmetric conversion from euros to drachmas in the financial sector.

“If confronted with the hard choice to abandon the euro, Greece should combine collective action and high technical capabilities to think not of an unconditional exit but rather an exit-plus-reentry program,” adds the FIEL director. “Argentina never thought about reentry and has been drifting ever since.”

Argentina used the depreciation of the peso to offset declining domestic demand by making its exports cheaper in foreign markets. It sounds like a good example to follow but Greece exports hardly anything. Also, unlike Argentina, Greece is one of 12 members of a single currency and any decision to abandon the euro would have far-reaching consequences for its eurozone partners and the European Union as a whole. Even if exit and devaluation were a viable economic option, it is almost inconceivable in political terms. This leaves debt restructuring as the only realistic option on the table.

“A process of adjustment without devaluation is possible although it may require in practice a reduction in nominal salaries and declining prices for goods and services, such as tourism,” says Loser. “A situation of adjustment without a serious look at the debt is much more difficult.”

However, even restructuring carries a very heavy economic and political cost. Argentina’s decision to default may have seemed like a simple way to get rid of an onerous load but it only helped the country switch one burden for another. Since 2001, the South American country has not been able to borrow on international markets and has been involved in a protracted process to convince its creditors to accept a loss on their investment. In 2005, three-quarters accepted a bond exchange worth a third of what they had invested. Buenos Aires is currently in negotiations with the remaining creditors and has given them until June 22 – the day Greece will play Argentina – to accept a debt securities swap.

Since its default, a number of factors have helped Argentina turn its fortunes around. Chief among which was the upturn in the world economy during the last decade. Greece, on the other hand, has to clamber out of its deep hole in the middle of a global recession. Also, Argentina’s success has come at a price – increased government spending that has been funded in part by central bank reserves and nationalized pension funds. Many economists have been scathing about this tactic, accusing the government of President Cristina Fernandez, who dismissed the rescue plan for Greece as being “condemned to fail”, of having no economic plan and burning its way through the country’s savings

“Argentina’s default and devaluation was a one-way journey without any careful planning that damaged the reputation of the country and affected its long-term growth prospects,” says Navajas. “This has been hidden by the extraordinary external conditions after the crisis, which will not be available for Greece, and which have led to confusion about the causes of recovery.”

It’s evident from Argentina’s experience that despite what some may say, default and exit from the euro are options that Greece should avoid considering. Or, at least if it does, then it should think its strategy through properly, something Greek governments do not have a very good track record of doing. Of course, there is always the possibility that, as with Argentina, its financial backers will just lose confidence in Greece and default/devaluation will not be a matter of opinion but a matter of course.

“The big message is that even with significant resources, there is a point when the rest of the world – or Europe and the IMF in Greece’s case – will not be willing to continue the support, even if they support others, such as Portugal, Spain and Ireland, because they are seen as more virtuous,” says Loser. “This is exactly what happened with Brazil and Uruguay at the time of the Argentinean crisis.”

There are clearly many things that Greece can learn from Argentina but perhaps the most useful one is that, as the national soccer team is likely to find out on Tuesday, when your back is up against the wall, there is no easy way to end up on the winning side.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on June 18, 2010.