Merkel’s Greek Dilemma

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Angela Merkel is a Chemist. In her doctoral thesis, she demonstrated herself to be a thoroughgoing expert when it comes to analysing the speed of disintegration of chemical compounds once the bonds which hold them together are weakened. Unfortunately she is now having to apply all this acquired expertise and know-how in a determined attempt to avoid the break up and falling apart, not of a highly complex chemical substance, but of an even more complex economic and political one, and the bonds which are the focus of all her attention right now are not chemical, but financial and social.

The problems we in Europe all now face together (”wir teilen ein gemeinsames schicksal” in M. Trichet’s words) have not arrived just “suddenly one springtime” as it were, indeed they come from afar. Right from the very begining it has been no easy matter for German society to achieve the consensus necessary to accept the idea of participating in a common currency, the Bundesbank has long maintained its by now well-known reservations, while not a few have been the voices expressing the view that having so many diverse countries all sharing the same monetary unit would inevitably create a structure which was too unwieldy to be manageable, and too weak to hold together when the real storm weather came. What was needed, it was argued, was a two, not a one, speed Europe.

Unfortunately, all these simmering issues once more resurfaced during the last week, over the tricky question of what to do about Greek financing needs, and Germany’s economic and political leadership now seem to be locked in an intense debate about exactly which path to take. Meanwhile Greek bond spreads simply work their way onwards and upwards, while capital flight from Greek bank deposits has forced the banks themselves to go rushing to the government for a further 18.000 million euros in funding just to keep them alive.

The current issue came to a head last Monday afternoon, following a brief report on the Financial Times website stating that progress with the decision on any Greek rescue plan was effectively deadlocked due to the inability of the Germany to agree with her other European partners the precise rate of interest to be charged on any loan to be provided. Ironically it is this single issue which is currently bringing European decision making to a dead halt, and creating a level of uncertainty and debate of such intensity that, if it is not resolved decisively, could bring the very future of the Euro into question. And it is not a trivial matter, since the rate charged will become a precedent, which other, larger, countries can refer to later.

Essentially the problem is this. According to the US economists Carmen Reinhardt and Ken Rogoff (in a widely quoted paper "Growth In A Time Of Debt") a potential tipping point exists once government debt breaches the 100% of GDP level in the aftermath of a financial crisis. After this point the impact of additional state spending is, paradoxically, to effectively reduce growth (given the weight of interest repayments, and the additional risk price charged for lending, and the impact of more government debt on investor confidence) and indeed far from helping a country to recover, further borrowing may mean the economy actually shrinks rather than grows.

Let’s take an example. Imagine Greece has debt at the 100% of GDP level (in fact it is somewhat over 115%), and the price investors charge for buying the bonds is around 6% (or more or less 3% more than the German government has to pay to sell equivalemt debt). Now let’s also imagine that Greece has zero inflation and zero growth (they are in the midst of a massive correction which will last some years, so these are reasonable, and indeed possibly even optimistic assumptions). Then Greece will need to produce what is know as a “primary surplus” (or difference between current spending and current income) of around 6% just to stand still, and not see its level of gross indebtedness increase. But Greece, in 2009, had a primary deficit of some 7% of GDP.That is to say, simply to not get more in debt Greece has to withdraw something like 13% of GDP in demand from the economy, and this is massive, which is why all the experts anticipate a sharp contraction in the Greek economy over the next 3 or 4 years, and why rather than looking to domestic demand the Greeks will need to look to exports for support (The US economist Charles Calomiris has an excellent detailed explanation of all this here, while Peter Boone and Simon Johnson dig even deeper here) .

Which is where the European Union comes in. Basically, if Greece has to pay such a high interest rate differential to support such a large debt there is every likelihood she will not be able to continue to finance herself, and default will become inevitable. You can only demand so much effort from the reformed alchoholic before they are driven back to drinking in frustration. On the other hand the EU could help by making the interest rates charged cheaper, but unfortunately there is a 1993 decision of the German constitutional court which makes it effectively illegal for the German government to participate in such a subsidised loan. The IMF can help, they are reportedly willing to make a loan of up to 10 billion euros at very favourable rates, but there are limits to how far they can go, since they cannot justify favouring comparatively rich Europeans when they deny such funding to poorer countries in the third world.

And the quantity Greece actually needs is massive. Initial reports spoke of a total loan of around 25 billion, but this is surely not enough. At least 50 billion will be needed, and some estimates put the number much higher (see Peter Boone and Simon Johnson again). And remember, we are not talking about fancy theories here, all of this is all simple arithmetic: either Greece gets a large, cheap loan, or she will default. They will have no alternative. So European decision making is gridlocked, while on Thursday Greece’s 10 year bond interest rate differential hit record post-EMU highs of 4,63%, and the ineterest being charged was not 6% but as high as 7.51% at one point.

Naturally, if Greece were to do the “honourable thing”, and leave the Eurozone and default, “all would be light”. But they won’t, and there is no good reason why they should do so. Now, enter Professor Starbatty of Tübingen University. He has another proposal. Not Greece, but Germany should leave the Eurozone, and go back to the Mark. And before you start to laugh, you should bear in mind that he is very serious in his proposal, and many Germans agree with him. Indeed so seriously does Angela Merkel take the possibility that any cheap loan to Germany will encourage supporters of Professor Starbatty to go to the Constitutional Court and ask for a ruling that German participation in the common currency is illegal that she has frozen the whole Greek bailout process.

And it is not clear, at this stage what the view of the Bundesbank is. According to German press reports, accepted by the bank itself, the Bank is currently considering an internal report on the rescue loan proposal which states “This agreement of the heads of government, which according to our knowledge has been reached without any consultations from central banks, implies risks to stability that should not be underestimated,” (my emphasis).

And before anyone complains that the Germans are too dependent on exports to the South of Europe to do anything which makes selling these more difficult, please consider that domestic demand growth in all four Southern European members of the Eurozone is expected to be extremely weak over the next decade, while growth in emerging markets like India, China, Brazil and Indonesia is predicted to be massive. The markets are moving, so why not move with them?

Of course, none of this means that the Eurozone, like one of those chemical compounds Angela used to study, is about to fly apart. But we should not underestimate the stresses the currency union faces at this point. As former IMF chief economist Ken Rogoff pointed out in the Financial Times this week, “if investors gather with enough sustained force, and if the central bank lacks sufficient resilience and resources, they can blow out a fixed exchange rate regime that might otherwise have lasted quite a while longer.”

What the countries in the South of Europe need to give the Germans right now are not arguments about how they would be foolish for them to leave, but arguments about what they themselves are prepared to do to make it more attractive for them to stay. The German giving machine is all done, and the Germans themselves are now more than tired of being continually told they need to pay, pay and pay again for events that now took place over half a century ago.

Edward Hugh is a Barcelona-based macro economist who specializes in growth and productivity theory, demographic processes and their impact on macro performance, and the underlying dynamics of migration flows.  This essay was previously published at A Fistful of Euros.  Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.

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