The International Monetary Fund has now poured cold water on Greece’s bailout focusing attention on excessive optimism about economic growth. This fundamental error caused other serious misjudgments – about deficit reduction, financial sector stress, the speed of reforms, and debt sustainability. The fundamental error was not the result of bad luck. It was the result of crass stupidity and gross wishful thinking on the part of all actors in the saga.
The IMF now concludes that more debt relief is required than was originally countenanced – some 7 per cent of gross domestic product – to meet the debt sustainability target of 124 per cent GDP in 2020 and of 110 per cent in 2022. This is in addition to the hole of 4 per cent acknowledged in the 2012 agreement, a hole which has yet to be plugged.
In reality, the target of 124 per cent of GDP is itself arbitrary and illusionary. It is arbitrary because there is no economic rationale for this number. It is an illusion because investors no longer view Greek debt as sovereign, but as sub-sovereign. Sub-sovereign entities, like for example the individual US states, cannot sustain the same debt-to-GDP ratios as sovereign nations, because they lack the ability to print their own money. A figure in the range of 60-80 per cent of GDP is more realistic.
From this perspective, Greece will remain stuck in a vicious circle of recession and debt deflation until it exits the euro-zone and defaults unilaterally on its debt. Politically, this will become the only feasible solution as established targets fade into irrelevance. Greek politicians will have a vote-seeking reason to quit the euro just as soon as the country achieves a primary budget surplus and has implemented labor market reforms sufficient to return an economic benefit from devaluation.
This is not the message that was passed out in 2012 by the IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank troika in forging the 2012 bailout settlement. It is not a message that Angela Merkel desires to hear just prior to major German elections. But it is the truth, as only the Oracle at Delphi can tell it.
Hat Tip: Wolfgang Munchau, ‘Hail the outbreak of honesty about Greece’s bailout’, Financial Times, June 10, 2013