Saturday, 16 June 2012

Cancel The Greek Debt

By Michael Burke

The Greek general election on June 17 presents a clear political choice on whether to continue with the ‘austerity’ measures imposed by the Troika of the ECB, EU and IMF which have caused a disastrous economic slump. Greek GDP fell by over 13 per cent between 2007 and 2011 and contracted sharply again in the 1st quarter of 2012. In real terms the compensation of employees has fallen by approximately 15%. The cause of the slump is the investment strike by capital, down nearly 47 per cent since the slump began and accounting for nearly 90% of the entire fall in output.
Yet Greece is just the sharpest expression of the European crisis, which at the very least is likely to see the continent as a whole remain in a depression. This is a Europe-wide crisis and it requires continent-wide solutions.

As the first step, it is necessary to address the claim that the ‘austerity’ measures (which are actually designed to cut wages and non-wage benefits) are necessary to close the deficit in public finances. As EU Commission projections show, the Greek government’s ‘primary balance’ is a deficit of just 1 per cent of GDP (see table below). The primary balance is the balance on government finances once debt interest payments are excluded. The very large total public sector deficit arises because of interest payments amounting to 6.3 per cent of GDP. The EU projection is that the primary deficit will rise to no more than 2 per cent of GDP in 2013.

Table 1
12 06 16 Table 1

Therefore a key component of the Greek crisis could easily be resolved simply by cancelling the debt. The interest payments would no longer be made. This is necessary as it is widely recognised that the debt is unsustainable and a default is inevitable. The EU estimates that the level of public sector is currently over 160 per of GDP. The formula used for assessing debt sustainability is that the real growth rate must exceed the real interest rate multiplied by the debt as a proportion of GDP. More succinctly, government revenues must be growing at a greater rate than the interest payments on existing debt.

Using that formula, if Greece were growing in real terms at 2.4 per cent per year (the average of the 10-year period 1992-2001) then the real interest rate would need to be 1.5 per cent to be sustainable, given the current level of debt. Instead the Greek economy is contracting, at a rate of over 6 per cent a year, and market interest rates are close to 30 per cent.

Previously, the claim was that ordinary citizens in the rest of Europe would suffer through their pension and other funds if there were a cancellation of the debt, or if any Greek government abrogated the debt. Whatever the previous merits of that argument it has been nullified by the exit of most private sector investors from the Greek government bond market. Any private sector investors who remain cannot be ordinary pension funds, as these are not allowed to invest in such high-risk, lowly-rated bonds.

The public sector, through the ECB and through Greek institutions are now the majority holders of Greek government debt. The ECB, as the central bank which stands behind the Euro, cannot possibly go broke as a result of a Greek default; it has unlimited recourse to Euros. It has in any event made significant profits on its previous purchases of Greek government debt.

The main negative impact would be felt on Greek banks who remain holders of their government debt. But these are rapidly heading towards insolvency in any case as the effects of the economic contraction takes hold. Whatever the outcome of the election Greek banks are facing nationalisation at some point As a result there will be a pressing need to recapitalise the banks under public ownership, which is a process that has already begun in Spain under the auspices of the ECB and EU.

Apart from the impact on hedge funds, vulture funds and other speculative vehicles, no disaster follows a Greek default if there is a recapitalisation.

In Britain, the equivalent of US$7.8bn in total Greek debt is held by these speculators. Less than US$3bn is held by British banks or public bodies (mainly the Bank of England). No negative consequences follow from writing this down to zero.

Cancelling the debt would remove one of the huge burdens on the population of Greece. It would not lead to any disastrous financial consequences for the ordinary citizens of the rest of Europe. For those who oppose ‘austerity’ across Europe, cancelling the Greek debt is the main practical contribution that can currently be made in support of those leading that struggle in Greece.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

To get out of its economic crisis Europe needs to learn from China

By John Ross

Four years into the international financial crisis, it is clear that the economic policies followed in Europe to deal with it have failed to do so. For a long time, there was a refusal to examine the real facts of Europe's economic situation and take the appropriate policy measures. Once Europe does start to analyse its economic problems correctly, however, it will see that it has a lot to learn from China. Naturally this does not mean that Europe can mechanically copy China's approach, but there are important trends which Europe can study.

The fundamental trends in Europe's economy are illustrated in Figure 1. This shows the changes in different components of the European Union (EU)'s GDP since the first quarter of 2008 – the peak of the last business cycle and immediately before the onset of the financial crisis. It may be seen that the negative trend in the EU economy is entirely dominated by its fall in investment. The EU's trade balance has improved during the financial crisis, government consumption has risen, and the fall in personal consumption is relatively small. But the fall in fixed investment is huge, amounting to 150 percent of the total decline in GDP. This fall far more than offsets the performance in other economic sectors. The economic situation in Europe is therefore entirely dominated by this investment fall.

Figure 1
12 05 13 EU

After four years of failing to look at the real situation, an identification of this actual core problem in Europe's economy is beginning to emerge. European Parliament President Martin Shulz recently wrote on Europe's crisis: "…what is to be done? First, targeted investment should be given priority." José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, and Olli Rehn, the European commissioner charged with dealing with the euro crisis, have now said it is likely that EU leaders will agree next month to increase the capital of the European Investment Bank by €10bn ($13 billion), which could be used as collateral to start large infrastructure "pilot projects" on a pan-European scale.

These policy changes, while a step in the right direction, are too small to turn the situation around. The EU is a US$16 trillion economy. The idea that a $13 billion program, only 0.06 per cent of the EU GDP, can offset the US$343 billion decline in EU investment since the first quarter of 2008 is clearly unrealistic.

The European Commission admits that there is €82 billion (US$106 billion) in unused structural funds in the EU's medium-term budget. This could theoretically be used to tackle the investment decline. But firstly, even the use of this entire sum is less than one third of the decline in investment which has taken place in Europe. Secondly, national governments have not yet agreed that these funds can be used for a European investment program.

Therefore four years after the beginning of the crisis, EU governments are beginning to discuss the right issues, but the practical measures they are proposing are still much too small to deal with the scale of problems that Europe faces.

The difference with China can be seen clearly in Figure 2, which shows the results of the stimulus program launched by China in 2008 to counter the international financial crisis. This stimulus program directly targeted raising investment – in particular infrastructure and now housing. The results are evident. Far from falling sharply, as in Europe and the US, China's investment rose.

Consequently, compared to the situation on the eve of the financial crisis, China's economy expanded by over 40 per cent in four years compared to growth of 1 per cent in the US and a contraction of 2 per cent in Europe. China's stimulus program was $586 billion, or about 13 per cent of China's 2008 GDP – the majority part directly targeted investment.

Figure 2
12 05 13 Change in components of GDP

China's stimulus, in terms of proportion of GDP, is equivalent to a program of US$2 trillion in the EU today. An investment program on that scale would be substantially too large in the EU at present – the situation is not as critical as in 2008. Nevertheless it is only necessary to compare this number to the $13 billion discussed by EU commissioners today, to see how inadequate is the scale of the proposed EU response to the present situation.

Jens Weidman, president of Germany's Bundesbank, has complained about the lack of policy tools available in Europe: "Now that fiscal stimulus has reached the bounds of feasibility in many countries, monetary policy is often seen as the 'last man standing'…However…contrary to widespread belief, monetary policy is not a panacea and central banks' firepower is not unlimited." But Weidman's conclusion exists only because Europe, somewhat arrogantly, refuses to study the country which passed most successfully through the international financial crisis – China.

Two years ago I wrote: "The dispute… between the US and Europe over'economic stimulus' versus 'deficit reduction' convincingly demonstrates the superiority of China's system of macro-economic regulation. China has faced no similar dilemma. It has simultaneously carried out the world's biggest economic stimulus package while running a budget deficit which is entirely sustainable – under 3 percent of GDP. China has therefore not had to face the choice between continuing fiscal economic stimulus measures and placing the priority on budget consolidation."

This remains the key problem. Unless Europe is prepared to grasp the nettle of a large "China style" program, one based on state-led investment, Europe is likely to face, at best, years of economic stagnation.

China's authorities have always rightly clarified that it is not arguing for its economy to be a model for others. It rightly insists every country is specific and therefore no country can or should mechanically copy another. But nevertheless China learned many things from other countries. For its own sake, Europe should start to learn from China
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This article originally appeared at Key Trends in Globalisation.