Greece Hits the Self-Destruct Button

Greeks squared off against Germans, and neither won.

The nays have it.

Photographer: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

Greece has decisively voted "no" or "oxi" in the #greferendum. I mean, decisively. By Sunday afternoon here in the U.S., the election map was a solid sea of orange for the "no" side.

I am shocked. I probably shouldn't be. I've been pointing out for a while that countries often do seemingly crazy things to themselves when they are mad at foreigners. The worst possible analysis of any sort of international situation is to say "Obviously, they're not going to do that, because that would be crazy!" There were probably a lot of reporters standing around saying that in 1914, while the crazy people went off and started World War I.

So I'm not shocked because I believed it couldn't happen. I'm just shocked because I thought it wouldn't happen; when I left work on Thursday afternoon, the conventional wisdom was that the Greeks were going to vote "yes" and go back to the negotiating table yet again. But I'm also a bit shocked because I'm now trying to game out exactly what happens next. Whether you think Greece exits the euro or not, things look pretty shockingly bad.

Bloomberg colleague Joe Weisenthal suggests that this is not, in fact, what Greeks are trying to do; they're simply trying to get a better deal from creditors. If true, that's ... well, Hugo Dixon summed it up yesterday afternoon: "Great tragedy of Greek referendum is that many of those who voted NO probably don't realise what is about to hit them"

At this point, Greece is now down to two options:

  1. The Troika cravenly caves in the face of the mighty resolve of the Greek people and offers Greece very attractive terms for continued help.
  2. The Troika decides that they have had about enough of all this, and Greece exits the euro.

The latter seems far more likely to me than the former. Either the Greeks are gravely mistaken, or I am. But most of the commentary I've seen leans toward my interpretation.

Greece's problem is easy to state: austerity is horrible, a fixed exchange rate makes their economy uncompetitive, and the interaction of those two things promises a lot of misery for a long time. They want someone else to share some of their real and very deep pain.

The Troika's problem is also fairly easy to state, in three words: Spain, Portugal, Italy.

These countries also have a bit of a debt problem, and the euro is not doing any favors for their economic competitiveness. They are much bigger than Greece. While a Greek default and exit from the euro probably won't do much damage to the euro zone's financial stability, a similar move from other PIIGS would present a considerably larger problem. And if Greece gets a fantastic deal from its creditors, then the Troika is quite reasonably afraid that those countries are going to start asking why they're the suckers.

There is a lot of missing the point in current commentary on Greece, a lot of ranting about private creditors who took haircuts years ago, and people citing the IMF to the effect that Greece's debt is unsustainable and can't reasonably ever be paid off. This latter point is true. But it is not a new discovery. It has been known for quite some time that Greece cannot actually pay off the money that is owed. As Daniel Davies wrote back in January, the Greek debt "basically isn’t an economically meaningful number any more. The purpose of its existence is as a political quantity; it’s part of the means by which control is exercised over the Greek budget by the Eurosystem. The regular rituals of renegotiation of the bailout package, financing of debt maturity peaks and so on, are the way in which the solvent Euroland nations exercise the kind of political control that they feel they need to have if they are going to be fiscally responsible for the bills."

Just looking at the mechanics of the IMF default and the pending payment they owe to the European Central Bank tell the tale: they need to come to a deal with creditors so that they will give them the money to pay the IMF, which will give them the money to pay the ECB, and so on down the road. We are not arguing about whether the Greeks should have to do austerity in order to repay creditors; we are arguing over how much austerity creditors will demand in order to continue to lend them money to roll over their unpayable debt. 

Why do they need this control, you may ask? Why not just give them a clean haircut and let them rebuild as they will?  Three reasons. The first is practical: Greece's problem isn't just its interest payments. It also needs money for ongoing spending. James Hamilton presents a fairly convincing case that Greece has never really had a substantial primary surplus, which is to say that all along, it has mostly been spending more than it collects in tax revenue, even if you get rid of the interest payments. But even if Greece had a small primary surplus a few weeks ago, it sure doesn't now after a banking crisis. So if Greece exits the euro and defaults, the immediate result will be more austerity, not less.

The second reason that "lots of debt relief" isn't the obvious answer is moral hazard: If default is too pleasant, we will get more of this. The Troika doesn't want any more of this. They think this is quite bad enough.

Of course, the Troika probably should have offered better terms years ago, with more debt forgiveness (if perhaps not as much as Greeks and American progressives would like) and less political control. Instead we've had endless renegotiations, which are costly for everyone, and not incidentally have created enormous bad blood between Greece and the rest of Europe that is making it hard to come to a stable resolution. But the fact is that they didn't, and at this point we are hard up against some ugly politics on both sides, as well as a Greek economic crisis that is going to make all these problems much harder.

Which brings us to our third reason: politics. In the words of Tyler Cowen, "A political program has to be something that voters could at least potentially believe, and international negotiations therefore cannot stray too far from common-sense morality, including when it comes to creditor-debtor relations." I might add a corollary to this: you can actually stray quite far as long as voters aren't paying attention. But once they are, you are going to end up back at boring old saws like "People should pay their debts" rather than advanced macroeconomic theorems. In a democracy, politicians are accountable to voters, however much you may deplore this as pandering to base and uneducated instincts. And German voters do not seem to want their government to give Greece a bunch of money with no strings attached.

So it's hard for me to see how the creditors simply open the taps wide while substantially easing off on the austerity stuff. Which means it's hard for me to see how Greece stays in the euro, barring some miraculous about-face from European politicians during the emergency summit they are planning to hold (which I cannot entirely rule out, but am not exactly counting on). Their banks are shut, people are sketching plans to make bank depositors take haircuts, and without more financial assistance from abroad, the government is going to default on another round of payments by the end of the month. The financial crises I have followed in other countries suggest that the natural next step is devaluation of the currency and restructuring of the banking system, which is to say, leaving the euro. But how, exactly, do they do this? Just the physical challenges of printing and distributing money is daunting. The other issues are harder still.

Normally, if you scrap your currency, you announce a new one for which the old can be swapped at some fixed rate. If you devalue, you announce that your old currency will now trade against dollars and Swiss francs at a new and less favorable exchange rate. But when that happens, the old currency or exchange rate goes away at the same time.  If Grexit happens, you'll have two physical currencies circulating side by side: valuable euros versus drachmas of uncertain worth that no one is going to want to take. Particularly your trading partners. Which in turn will make it even harder to get the drachma up and running to the point that it functions as a reasonable substitute for the old euros.

I'm of the school that says that Greece never should have joined the euro in the first place. But undoing a mistake is rarely as easy as not making it in the first place. The path out of the euro is going to be a lot harder than the path that would have led away from it 20 years ago. Nonetheless, that seems to be the path that Greek voters have chosen.

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