Greeks in the Streets Are Right, EU Economists Have It Wrong

Greece Economy - Ελληνική Οικονομία

by Mark Weisbrot

The agreement by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to provide up to $960 billion of support to the Continent’s weaker economies, as well as to financial markets, has appeared to calm investors worldwide, for the moment.

But this does not resolve the underlying problem, even in the short run.

The problem is one of irrational economic policy. The Greek government has reached an agreement with the E.U. authorities (which include the European Commission and the European Central Bank), and the I.M.F. that will make the current economic problems even worse.

This is known to economists, including the ones at the E.U. and I.M.F. who negotiated the agreement. The projections show that if their program “works,” Greece’s debt will rise from 115 percent of gross domestic product today to 149 percent in 2013. This means that in less than three years, and most likely sooner, Greece will be facing the same crisis that it faces today.

Furthermore, the Greek Finance Ministry now projects a decline of 4 percent in G.D.P. this year, down from less than 1 percent last year. However that projection is likely to prove overly optimistic. In other words, the Greek people will go through a lot of suffering, their economy will shrink and their debt burden will grow, and then they will very likely face the same choice of debt rescheduling, restructuring, or default – and/or leaving the Euro.

There are lessons to be learned from this debacle. First, no government should sign an agreement that guarantees an open-ended recession, and leaves it to the world economy to eventually pull them out of it. This process of “internal devaluation” – whereby unemployment is deliberately driven to high levels in order to drive down wages and prices while keeping the nominal exchange rate fixed – is not only unjust, it is unviable. This is even more true for Greece, given its initial debt burden.

The tens of thousands of Greeks in the streets have it right, and the E.U. economists have it wrong. You cannot shrink your way out of recession; you have to grow your way out, as the United States is doing (albeit too slowly).

If the E.U. and the I.M.F. will not offer a growth option to Greece, the country would be better off leaving the Euro and renegotiating its debt.

Argentina tried the “internal devaluation” strategy from mid-1998 to the end of 2001, suffering through a depression that pushed half the country into poverty. It then dropped its peg to the dollar and defaulted on its debt. The economy shrank for just one more quarter and then had a robust recovery, growing 63 percent over the next six years.

(By contrast, the “internal devaluation” process promises not only indefinite recession, but a long, very slow recovery if it “works” – as we can see from the I.M.F.’s projections for Latvia and Estonia. Both of these countries are projected to take 8 or 9 years to reach their pre-recession levels of output.)

The E.U. authorities sent markets crashing last Thursday by saying that they had not discussed using “quantitative easing” (i.e., the creation of money, as the U.S. Federal Reserve has done to the tune of $1.5 trillion in the last couple of years) to help resolve the situation.

E.U. officials also made statements that more deficit reduction is needed by countries that are still in recession or barely recovering. The new agreement reached over the weekend partially reverses these statements, but not enough.

The pundits are quick to blame Greece and the other weaker European economies – Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain – for their problems. Although, like most of the world, these countries did have asset bubbles and other excesses during the boom years, they didn’t cause the world recession that sent their deficits skyrocketing.

Most importantly, the real problem now is that the E.U. and the I.M.F. are still offering them the medieval medicine of bleeding the patient. Until that changes, expect a lot more trouble ahead.

Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), in Washington, DC.
Published on Wednesday, May 12, 2010 by International Herald Tribune

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Tymphaios says:

I am not an economist but mathematically speaking if you make workers redundant or reduce salaries you reduce income from taxes. As a result the economy shrinks and therefore Greece's ability to repay debts may actually be weakened. The untapped asset of Greece is its educated youth. The solution for the Greek economy likely depends on helping the masses of educated Greeks turn their education into capital.