So long, austerity.

Photographer: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

What Syriza's Sweep Means for Greece and Europe

Mohamed A. El-Erian is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the chief economic adviser at Allianz SE and chairman of the President’s Global Development Council, and he was chief executive and co-chief investment officer of Pimco. His books include “The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability and Avoiding the Next Collapse.”
Read More.
a | A

The Coalition of the Radical Left, known as Syriza, placed first in the Greek elections today, with at least 36 percent of the vote, according to exit polls. The result could even give Syriza an absolute majority and, if it wishes, allow it to govern without a coalition partner. With these outcomes going beyond what markets expected and priced in, here is a Q&A before trading resumes Monday.

QUESTION: What happened and why will it matter for markets?:

ANSWER: The early parliamentary elections have given Syriza a significant and historic victory that surpasses the market consensus.

This is the first time Syriza is in a position to form and lead a government. Its popularity reflects intensifying economic and social frustrations among Greek citizens, including the perception that their long sacrifice hasn't yielded any meaningful gains, let alone any hint of an end to what they see as years of austerity and deprivation.

An alternative economic approach was the core of Syriza's electoral campaign. Its program, which rejects austerity and seeks debt reduction, was pursued with vigor by the party's leader, Alexis Tspiras, who frequently took swipes at Germany, including personal attacks on Chancellor Angela Merkel. He argued that the most influential power in the euro zone was too austerity-obsessed in its approach to Greece.

Greece's Fiscal Odyssey

This has led to concerns that Greece could exit the euro zone. A so-called Grexit would entail the return of a national currency to replace the euro, losing access to European Central Bank financing windows and, most probably, less financial support from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. It would also raise doubts about some other countries in the region, leading to a repricing of individual and collective risk factors.

An exit from the euro would require the Greek government to counter the immediate threat of significant disruptions, come up with a new medium-term economic vision, strengthen its domestic institutions and pursue a different relationship with European partners that would preserve the country’s access to free trade and certain financing arrangements.

Grexit concerns have been amplified by indications that, particularly compared with 2010-2012, Germany appears less concerned about the negative spillovers for the euro zone  --  and for good reason, given the (albeit still incomplete) efforts to strengthen the region’s institutional structures. For example, regional financing mechanisms have been strengthened, banks have been subjected to more rigorous stress testing and a significant portion of national debt has been refinanced with longer maturities and lower interest rates.

Q: How are markets likely to react when trading resumes Monday?

A: If the larger-than-expected Syriza win is confirmed, and especially if it results in an absolute majority, expect a sell-off in European risk assets, including equities. High-quality bonds would be supported by flight-to-quality flows, resulting in lower yields (particularly on German bonds). And look for prices to fall and risk spreads to widen on bonds issued by European peripheral nations such as Italy, Portugal and Spain.

On the currency front, the euro will probably come under pressure, too, exacerbating the recent weakening to levels not seen in 11 years.

Greek markets are likely to be subjected to the greatest pressures, including a notable widening in risk spreads on sovereign and bank bonds. The question is whether this also translates into a significant pick-up in withdrawals by residents of bank deposits as well as capital flight.  If it does, Greek politicians would need to quickly take major steps to counter the threat of cascading market dislocations.

 Q: Is a Grexit inevitable?

A: No. To reduce the risk, Tsipras would need to embark quickly on a "Lula pivot." That is, he will need to assure markets that the relaxation of austerity would be accompanied by a big push on structural reforms, that the alleviation of the debt burden would be pursued in an orderly and negotiated manner, and that he is willing to engage in constructive discussions with Germany and other European partners.

Q: Are there broader implications?

A: Yes. The outcome of the Greek elections is indicative of a broader political phenomenon in Europe that involves the growth of non-traditional parties. Fueled by concerns about disappointing growth, unemployment and social issues, it is powered by large-scale dissatisfaction with the established political order. And it isn't limited to the peripheral economies.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mohamed A. El-Erian at melerian@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net