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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A New Narrative For Greece. Again?

The article from the Ekathimerini about building a fresh narrative for Greece made me wonder what the old narrative was/is. Since I couldn't remember any, I thought what kind of a narrative I would like to see. These are some of the thoughts which came to mind.

The first question I asked myself was what exactly is it that I would like to see achieved? And here is the answer I came up with: "We will seek to build a modern and prosperous Greece: a Greece characterized by economic opportunity and social equity, and served by an efficient administration with a strong public service ethos."

As I pondered this statement, my first reaction was that it basically says everything there is to say. But, of course: stating a goal alone will not do the trick. There has to be a discussion about how this goal can be achieved.

"We will create an obsession with exports!" This proclamation will have to be heard in all walls and halls of Greece. What is it that we could possibly export? Where do we have comparative advantages? Where would be good export markets? How can we move our products up the value chain before they leave Greece? How can we get assistance in pursuing this objective? And why, exactly, should we do all that? Well, because through exports we achieve financial inflows which we can then use to pay for imports, i. e. to increase our living standard. Not to mention the fact that many new jobs will be created.

"We will create an obsession with import substitution!" Now why would we want to do that? Because with imports, all the jobs along the production chain (product development, manufacturing, marketing, selling) are in other countries. We want to 'steal' those jobs from other countries by no longer importing products which could just as well be produced in Greece. Questions are: Which products which we are importing now could be just as well produced in Greece? Can we get any foreign manufacturers to manufacture in Greece? Where should we import from? (presumably from those countries which can reciprocate in one way or another). Import substitution is a job creation program!

"We will create an obsession with tourism!" Tourism is actually another form of exports and through tourism we achieve financial inflows which we can then use to pay for imports, i. e. to increase our living standard. We are first class in the luxury segment but in the rest of the industry we leave quite a bit of money on the table. Either because we have cheap tourists from cheap countries or because rich tourists from rich countries pay cheap all-inclusive prices. We will put the focus on improving quality. Quality of the infrastructure and quality of the service.

"We will create an obsession with foreign investment!" Every Greek will have to understand that there are only 3 options to get out of our economic crisis: foreign investment, foreign investment and foreign investment, again! We will pursue very aggressively foreign investors who take a long-term view with their investments. Who plan to add value to the Greece. And we will de-emphasize any kind of financial investors because such investors are principally interested in short-term financial gain. The key question will always be: Does the foreign investor promise know-how transfer, further investment and expansion. Put differently: Does the foreign investor accomplish something which we could not accomplish by ourselves. Or: Does the foreign investor contribute to the increase in exports, in import substitution and in improving the tourism infrastructure and quality of service?

And, finally -

"We will turn the Greek state into an efficient administration with a strong public service ethos!" Meritocracy will the the buzzword reverberating in the halls and walls of our public administration buildings! In the future, it will be very difficult to get a job in the public sector because the required qualifications will be very high. Patronage or nepotism will no longer be qualifications!

Our guiding policy will be that anything which hinders the above described measures or even makes them impossible will be reformed with great speed. We invite our critics to remind us forcefully should we deviate from this policy.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Debt Relief For Greece - A New Proposal

This article proposes an approach to Greece's debt relief which has not been discussed by authorities. At the heart of the proposal lies the following premise:

'Debt burden' is the amount of government revenues which has to be allocated to debt service (i. e. interest). Populists would argue that 'this is the amount of government revenues which we have to give to banks instead of building new schools and hospitals'.

In consequence, 'debt relief' can only mean reducing the 'debt burden'. If one considers the percentage of the debt burden (i. e. percentage of government revenues allocated to debt service) as the 'Borrower's Sacrifice', the premise of 'debt relief' must be to reduce the 'Borrower's Sacrifice'.

The table below shows the 'Borrower's Sacrifice' for all Eurozone countries. I have made the arbitrary decision to consider countries whose annual debt service exceeds 5 BEUR as 'significant countries'. The 'significant countries' are marked in blue and sorted by 'Borrower's Sacrifice' top-down.

Year 2016
Ordinary Interest "Borrower's
Government Expense Sacrifice"
Portugal  76.613 7.836 10,2%
Ireland 73.029 6.178 8,5%
Italy 788.502 66.272 8,4%
Spain 421.672 31.358 7,4%
Greece 87.473 5.649 6,5%
Belgium 214.063 12.074 5,6%
Austria 173.077 7.347 4,2%
France 1.181.278 41.983 3,6%
Germany 1.411.381 43.372 3,1%
Netherlands 307.004 7.551 2,5%
Finland 116.047 2.277 2,0%
Slovakia 32.345 1.339 4,1%
Slovenia 17.352 1.275 7,3%
Lithuania 13.315 523 3,9%
Cyprus 7.019 465 6,6%
Latvia 9.097 282 3,1%
Malta 3.871 218 5,6%
Luxembourg 23.147 183 0,8%
Estonia 8.507 16 0,2%

Portugal has the highest 'Borrower's Sacrifice' (10,2%) and the Netherlands have the lowest (2,5%). Greece ranks in the middle with 6,5%. However, it must be noted that Greece's 'Borrower's Sacrifice' is highly subsidized by the fact that the bulk of its debt carries below-market interest rates. That is 'debt relief' right there.

Under normal circumstances, the 'Borrower's Sacrifice' of a country is determined by the markets. Not so with Greece because Greece is bankrupt and kept afloat by the Eurozone. Thus, in the case of Greece, the 'Borrower's Sacrifice' can (and must be) steered by its creditors. The balancing act is to make the sacrifice as large as possible for the creditors' benefit without making it so large that it becomes politically unsustainable in Greece (and/or slows the growth potential).

In short, the 'Borrower's Sacrifice' for Greece should be somewhere between 2,5% (the lowest of the 'significant countries') and 10,2% (the highest). My point is: it does not matter so much where the 'Borrower's Sacrifice' is set at the outset. What really matters is that (a) it is made variable; that (b) it is tied to the correct base; and that (c) it has the right adjustment mechanism when the situation changes.

Suppose the 'Borrower's Sacrifice' had been agreed at 2,5% for Greece. In that case, Greece would have been expected to set aside 1.750 MEUR for interest in 2016 (2,5% of 87.473 MEUR). Put differently, Greece would have had to pay 3.899 BEUR LESS in interest than it actually did. That would have been real 'debt relief'.

Once Greece has made its 'Borrower's Sacrifice' (i. e. paid the 1.750 MEUR), Greece's part would have been done. Now it would be up to the creditors to negotiate an agreement among themselves who gets what of the cake. As long as Greece needs to be subsidized, it is clear that none of the creditors can get everything they want. The trick will be to make all creditors equally unhappy.

Why should the 'Borrower's Sacrifice' be tied to government revenues? (instead of, perhaps, to GDP?). The answer is quite simple: interest is paid out of government revenues and not out of GDP.

What should be the right adjustment mechanism? That's the tough part. The adjustment mechanism must assure that as Greece's economic strength increases, the 'Borrower's Sacrifice' increases accordingly. At some point in the future, the 'Borrower's Sacrifice' will reach levels which are acceptable to the markets and, at that point, and only at that point, Greece can truly return to markets.

In summary: the negotiation with Greece should be about the initial 'Borrower's Sacrifice' and the adjustment mechanism, and the negotiation among the creditors should be about allocating the 'Borrower's Sacrifice' amongst themselves. No more, no less.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Greece's Creditors Waiting For 123 BEUR!

The story has been making the media rounds that if Greece's Eurozone creditors agreed to a debt relief in the form of interest deferral until 2048, they would be waiting until 2048 to receive 123 BEUR. This is allegedly based on a forecast by the German Finance Ministry. No details as to how that calculation was made were given.

After having recovered from the shock of this piece of news, one can justifiably ask the question: "What else is new?"

Interest deferral does not mean that interest is forgiven. Its payment continues to be due but, as the name suggests, instead of paying interest every year, all interest is deferred until payment at a later date in the future. Until 2048, for example. And, normally, interest on interest deferred is also added to the bill.

Suppose Greece owed 200 BEUR out of its total debt of about 320 BEUR to Eurozone creditors. At a rate of 2%, the annual interest amount to be deferred would be 4 BEUR. Multiply that by 26 (from 2022-2048), you come to 104 BEUR. Given the difference with the above 123 BEUR, the German Finance Ministry's forecast calculates either with a higher level of debt or a higher interest rate or high interest on deferred interest, or a combination of these.

So there isn't really any news in this shocking news because we are talking about 'debt reprofiling' and not 'debt relief'. Debt reprofiling means to reprofile the existing debt and interest maturities in such a way that they become more amenable to the borrower's cash flow. That's all. There is no relief in that whatsoever.

To express shock about having to wait until 2048 for payment would only be justified if one felt that the payment can eventually be made. I don't believe that there is any person in the world who still believes that Greece can service its debt (i. e. pay interest at market rates), today or in 2048. Thus, to calculate interest at market rates (which cannot be paid), defer it out to 2048 so that a huge bullet payment results and then clamor that 123 BEUR have to be written off, well, that reminds a bit of Paul Kazarian's accounting tricks.

The only thing which will work for Greece is a debt reprofiling combined with a reasonable debt relief. To avoid that governments of lending countries have to tell their tax payers that they had to forgive Greece debt, the relief should be played via the interest rate.

The simplest way would be to set the interest rate at zero percent and to build in certain 'kickers' stipulating that interest could be charged in the future under certain unforeseen developments. For example, if Greece were to discover the world's largest oil reserves and became very rich, that could be a situation where the 'kicker' kicks in.

In the present interest rate environment, this debt relief would not be too costly for the lending countries. They could fix their funding cost until 2048 at rather low rates and the resulting 'loss on Greece' would become an opportunity loss (not collecting interest) whose bookkeeping entry no outsider could find in the published fiscal statements (because there is no bookkeeping entry for opportunity losses).

Everything else is a bit of a farce.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

America First! Germany First! Greece Perhaps last?

The Germans are all upset about President Trump not living up to global responsibilities. The President tells people to 'buy American' and to 'employ Americans'; he withdraws from the Paris Agreement because it would enrich other countries at the expense of Americans and then he even has the nerve to say it loud and clear: "America First!" President Trump blasted that message to the whole world in his inauguration speech.

That is indeed bad behavior. The Germans (and many other European countries) would never say that out loud. But a closer look merits the observation that there are indeed some parallels between Germans within the Eurozone and Trump within the global world community. Germany does not want to enrich other Eurozone countries (or rather: make them less poor) at the expense of German tax payers. Nevermind that it would be good for the Eurozone overall. Germany does not purse rogue companies like VW as forcefully as they pursue rogue (because profligate) states like Greece. The German Chancellor criticizes the American President for tweeting an unintelligible word but she does so in a sentence without true content. And one doesn't have to be a linguist to hear behind every statement of the German Finance Minister the unspoken appeal: "Germany First!"

Well, well, well. This doesn't look good for Greece. If everyone else aims at being first, someone has got to come out last. No point in pondering that. Better to have an ouzo!

PS: this obviously was written with tongue in cheek!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Lure Of Grexit - Debunked!

An author by the name of Leonidas Stergiou published an analysis in the Ekathimerini under the title "Why depreciation is the wrong medicine for the Greek economy". It is, for once, an objective discussion of the pro's and con's of a Grexit for the Greek economy. Stergiou takes issue with the premise voiced often by FM Schäuble: Greece should return to the Drachma, adjust its economy and when a new equilibrium is reached, Greece could return to the Euro. Schäuble's argument is that an adjustment of the Greek economy cannot be avoided and, given that, it would be far less painful to make that adjustment with the Drachma as currency instead of the Euro.

Leonidas Stergiou says that Schäuble is wrong, and he makes very good points to support his argument. His key point is:

"Harsh reality together with economics teach that the devaluation of a currency may help, provided that the country does not import more than it exports, and mainly that it does not import a lot of raw materials or intermediate materials that have to be processed. A country with such issues that proceeds with depreciation will be plagued by inflation. ... So in a country with a negative trade balance that imports a lot of raw materials, depreciation raises production costs and creates inflation. The raised production costs annul part of the competitiveness that was achieved by the depreciation. Should the inflation be transferred to salaries, then all the gains from the depreciation will be lost because, in the end, nothing became cheaper."

So for all those who would be hoping that a return to the Drachma would make their lives more comfortable, Stergiou serves a grand disillusionment:

"In other words the measures mandated by the memorandum would be inevitable and would have to be implemented strictly – but without the funding that came with the memorandum. In any case, right now there is internal devaluation taking place within the eurozone. If Greece did not have the euro, a tough economic adjustment program through austerity measures would still be necessary. Otherwise, the inflation due to depreciation would offset the benefits of the competitiveness after the depreciation. Now, Greece in the euro area cannot depreciate its currency in order to make its products and services more competitive. But it could directly reduce the prices of all components of the domestic GDP. To put it simply, if you cannot increase the purchasing power of others, you must decrease your own."

And Stergiou concludes with a condemnation of the Greek government (or rather: all Greek governments since the crisis broke out):

"Greek governments have preferred to accept austerity measures particularly through tax increases and reductions in pensions and wages rather than proceeding to reforms and speeding up the implementation of the MoUs. Instead of this, they entered into long-term and overnight negotiations with the troika in an attempt to postpone the political cost of the reforms for later. Thus, the recession period was prolonged, the debt increased, the financing needs remained unmet. This tactic leads to new MoUs and the prolonging of the recession period and increases the the chances of spiraling into recession and default. On the other hand, without a new MoU, a default can be considered a certain outcome."

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Greek Pensions - Dreams Turned Sour?

Under the heading of "They stole my money", the Ekathimerini reported about 4 cases of pensioners who feel that they have been 'destroyed' by the various pension cuts of the last 7 years. There is no question that a very large number of Greeks have ridiculously low pensions (below 500 Euros!) but if the average Greek pension is almost as high as the average German pension, as the IMF states, that can only be explained by a high number of pensions significantly above the average and/or by a high number of pensioners who do not fullfil today's pension criteria.

My understanding is that the 'reformed' pension criteria are now: ordinary retirement age 65 and minimum contribution years 40. Also, the survivor's pension is 50% of the original pension. I would guess that those are rather standard criteria in today's Europe.

One should review the 4 cases in the above article with a focus on the following questions:

1) At what age did the person retire?
2) How many years did the person work/contribute?
3) In the case of survivor's pensions, how high would the original pension have been?

When one reviews the 4 cases with the above questions in mind, one would come to the conclusion that there have indeed been drastic reductions but when looking at these 4 pensions as they now are after allegedly 13 pension cuts, one can only conclude that perhaps the Ekathimerini did not chose the best examples of how much many pensioners are suffering today.

The following 2 statistics about Greece's approximately 2,6 million pensioners also merit consideration:

* 633 thousand pensioners (24% of the total) are over the age of 81 and their average monthly pension is 712 Euros (compared with average Greek pensions of 890 Euros).

* 727 thousand pensioners (28% of the total) are below the age of 65 and their average monthly pension is 1.028 Euros. Put differently, pensioners below the new legal age of 65 account for almost one-third of the entire pension expense.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Current Account Vs. Fiscal Results

An anomaly is developing in Greece's domestic and foreign accounts. The historical trend was one of double-deficits, i. e. a deficit in both the budget as well as the current account. Makes sense in as much as a budget deficit increases domestic demand, puts money into the economy, increases imports and, in consequence, leads to a current account deficit.

Since 2010, austerity has taken money out of the economy leading to the well-known collapse in domestic demand. Greece turned a giant primary deficit into a surplus and, simultaneously, turned a giant current account deficit into a surplus in 2015.

In 2016, the primary surplus exploded as more money was taken out of the economy (taxes, etc.). However, an anomaly began: despite this further erosion of domestic demand, the current account went from a surplus of 205 MEUR in 2015 to a deficit of 1,1 BEUR in 2016. This trend now continues in 2017 where the government continued to run a primary surplus (albeit not a large as the year before) while the current account drifted more into the negative territory.

Below are the figures for Greece's current account in the first quarter of 2017, compared with the same period of the previous year. Also, the month of March is compared for both years.


January-March March
2017 2016 2017 2016
Revenue from abroad
Exports 6,7 5,5 2,6 2,0
Services (e. g. tourism) 3,6 3,0 1,3 1,1
Other income 2,6 2,5 0,6 0,8
Current transfers 0,9 0,7 0,2 0,2
------ ------ ------ ------
Total revenue from abroad 13,8 11,7 4,7 4,1
Expenses abroad
Imports 11,8 9,7 4,5 3,5
Services (e. g. tourism) 2,6 2,3 0,9 0,8
Other expense (e. g. interest) 1,4 1,5 0,4 0,4
Current transfers 0,5 0,6 0,2 0,2
------ ------ ------ ------
Total expenses abroad 16,3 14,1 6,0 4,9
Net foreign deficit (current account) -2,5 -2,4 -1,3 -0,8
Trade balance -5,1 -4,2 -1,9 -1,5
Services balance 1,0 0,7 0,4 0,3
Other balance 1,2 1,0 0,2 0,4
Current transfer balance 0,4 0,1 0,0 0,0
---- ---- ---- ----
Net foreign deficit (current account) -2,5 -2,4 -1,3 -0,8
January-March March
2017 2016 2017 2016
Exports "Other Goods" 4,7 4,3 1,8 1,6
Imports "Other Goods" 8,4 7,8 3,2 2,8
---- ---- ---- ----
Balance of goods excluding oil and ships -3,7 -3,5 -1,4 -1,2

Gone are the days of positive surprises with Greece's current account. What is even more disconcerting is the trend: the 2017 deterioration started noticeably in the month of February (January had actually been an improvement) and led to a whopping deterioration of 500 MEUR over the previous year in the month of March alone.

But the real question is: where is the money coming from to pay for this rather dramatic increase in imports? There is no significant increase in employment, no known increase in wages/salaries, certainly no increase in pensions and the increase in unpaid taxes would suggest that people are financially very strained.

I repeat the question: Where is the money coming from to pay for this rather dramatic increase in imports?