Last updated: January 27, 2015 4:25 pm
Greek debt and a default of statesmanship
Creating the eurozone is its members’ second-worst monetary idea, a break-up the worst
Sometimes the right thing to do is the wise thing. That is the case now for Greece. Done correctly, debt reduction would benefit Greece and the rest of the eurozone. It would create difficulties. But these would be smaller than those created by throwing Greece to the wolves.
Unfortunately, reaching such an agreement may be impossible. That is why the belief that the eurozone crisis is over is mistaken.
The truth, however, is that creditors have a moral responsibility to lend wisely. If they fail to do due diligence on their borrowers, they deserve what is going to happen. In the case of Greece, the scale of the external deficits, in particular, were obvious. So, too, was the way the Greek state was run.
The second proposition is that, since the crisis hit, the rest of the eurozone has been extraordinarily generous to Greece. This, too, is false. True, the loans supplied by the eurozone and the International Monetary Fund amount to the huge sum of €226.7bn (about 125 per cent of GDP), which is roughly two-thirds of total public debt of 175 per cent of GDP.
But this went overwhelmingly not to benefiting Greeks but to avoiding the writedown of bad loans to the Greek government and Greek banks. Just 11 per cent of the loans directly financed government activities. Another 16 per cent went on interest payments. The rest went on capital operations of various kinds: the money came in and then flowed out again. A more honest policy would have been to bail lenders out directly. But this would have been too embarrassing.
As the Greeks point out, debt relief is normal. Germany, a serial defaulter on its domestic and external debt in the 20th century, has been a beneficiary. What cannot be paid will not be paid.
The idea that the Greeks will run large fiscal surpluses for a generation, to pay back money creditor governments used to rescue private lenders from their folly is a delusion.
So what should be done? The choice is between the right, the convenient and the dangerous.
The dangerous approach is to push Greece towards default. This is likely to create a situation in which the European Central Bank would no longer feel able to operate as Greece’s central bank. That then would force an exit. The result for Greece would certainly be catastrophic in the short term.
That would be the worst of both worlds: the rigidity of pegs, without the credibility of a monetary union. In every future crisis, the question would be whether this was the “exit moment”. Chronic instability would be the result.
Creating the eurozone is the second-worst monetary idea its members are ever likely to have.
Breaking it up is the worst. Yet that is where pushing Greece into exit might lead. The right course is to recognise the case for debt relief, conditional on achievement of verifiable reforms.
Politicians will reject the idea. Statesmen will seize upon it. We will soon know which of the two they are.