Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Greek Tragedy, European Farce

It looks as though Greece is staying in the euro, after all (for now at least...).  The terms of the deal - pending approval by the Greek parliament - are not very favorable to Greece.  Essentially it means more of the same - additional financing from the EU in exchange for more austerity, "structural reforms" (in some cases absurdly detailed) and a EU supervised privatization of state-owned assets.  There is a vague promise to consider debt restructuring, but nothing concrete.

The reports from the negotiations over the weekend reinforced the impression that Germany, along with some of the other smaller countries, really wanted to push Greece out, but the French and Italians worked to prevent this outcome.

From the viewpoint of Germany, the issue is making sure that euro membership entails following associated rules and obligations: a more forgiving treatment of Greece would create a "moral hazard" problem, inviting more deviations in the future.  However, the rules they are enforcing do not make economic sense: they force procyclical fiscal policies and fail to confront an unsustainable debt burden.  (Some sympathy for the Germans, though: as this VoxEU piece by Kang and Mody illustrates, they were reluctant about the euro from the beginning).

The response to the deal has been highly critical: see Barry Eichengreen, Martin Sandbu, Wolfgang Munchau, Christian Odendahl and John Springford, Paul Krugman, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, John Cassidy, Eric Beinhocker, Neil Irwin.  This interview with former finance minister Varoufakis is also interesting.  Simon Wren-Lewis has a nice post on "trust," a word which has been thrown around alot lately.

The FT's Gideon Rachman has a somewhat different take, emphasizing that Germany backed off its evident desire to force a "Grexit".

One condition of the deal was continued IMF involvement.  While Greece objected to this, it may ultimately prove to be in their favor - the IMF has the capacity to act as a voice of sanity, and they have said that Greece's debt is unsustainable (much of the criticism of the IMF is that they haven't pushed strongly enough for a debt writedown, as they ordinarily would).  IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard discussed Greece in a blog post (and Ashoka Mody offered a critical response).

Although some of us think Greece might be better off outside the euro, their willingness to sign on to an agreement of the sort the Syriza govermnment came in to power promising to end (and essentially what they voted "no" on in the referendum a week ago) demonstrates how badly they want to stay in.  As long as Greece is saddled with an unsustainable debt, the prospect of a rerun of this drama will remain.  But the removal of the immediate threat of a euro exit hopefully will give a short-run boost (Daniel Davies gives some reasons for short-term optimism).

As for the euro, the last several years have laid bare the institutional shortcomings - some of which are discussed in this Simon Tilford column - underscoring the reasons many economists were skeptical of the project from the outset.  Although political solidarity and continued moves towards integration might have overcome these flaws, the last several weeks have demonstrated that, as a political matter, the sense of commonality needed to make the euro work does not exist.

Update: IMF to the rescue (?!):
The International Monetary Fund threatened to withdraw support for Greece’s bailout on Tuesday unless European leaders agree to substantial debt relief, an immediate challenge to the region’s plan to rescue the country.
On this, see also Ambrose Evans-Pritchard and Josh Barro.  A few hours ago I said they had the "capacity to act as the voice of sanity" but I didn't expect them to use it so soon...  This made me laugh:
Hmm... at this point, hard to say if this will lead to a better deal, or just blow it up, as Gideon Rachman suggests:

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