Greece and Representative Negotiation

John Cochrane writes,

So, the Drachmaized Greece that I see is not the cleanly devalued newly competitive powerhouse that some on the left seem to envision. Instead I see a two-currency economy. Pensioners and government workers and anyone unlucky enough to still have a Greek bank account get Drachmas. Hotel owners, restaurant owners, and exporters get euros, above or under the table.

My comments:

1. I agree with John that nothing real changes with a new currency. Instead, it is a way of arranging the government’s default. In addition to defaulting to bondholders, the government will default to other claimants, including pensioners. But the way it will default to the latter is by paying them in lower-valued currency.

2. I continue to believe that we will see an opaque bailout. What is happening now is pre-concession posturing on the part of the other European nations.

The classic example of pre-concession posturing is the labor union strike. One theory of strikes is that they take place because the union leaders are ready to make a deal, but they need to convince their membership that the union leaders bargained really hard. Going out on strike sends that message. Similarly, for the European leaders, engaging in table-pounding and other theatrics will help convince their constituents that they were really tough on the Greeks. Meanwhile, in the background, an opaque bailout will be arranged.

This theory of representative negotiation also holds for the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The theory predicts that there will be a deal, but in the meantime the negotiators will posture to indicate that they are being very tough with their opponents.

Speaking of Iran nuclear issues, I read Michael Oren’s new book about being Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. I found Oren credible, although for my taste he squeezes too much melodrama out of his experience. One of Oren’s points about the Obama Administration is that it has very tight message discipline, and I believe that we can see that in some of the negative reviews of Oren coming from Obama-linked writers.

Oren’s description of Obama amounts to saying that he operates using the oppressor-oppressed axis, which strikes me as accurate. Even so, it still requires some mental contortions to treat the leadership in Iran as oppressed, rather than as oppressors.

The Greek Crisis and the Subprime Crisis

Ana Swanson writes,

Matthijs compares the situation to the U.S. subprime crisis. Who was really at fault for the housing crisis in the U.S.: The subprime borrowers who bought houses they couldn’t afford, or the predatory lenders who encouraged them to take them out?

I, too, see parallels with the subprime crisis. However, I do not think that predatory lenders are to blame for either. In both cases, bank regulators were responsible for allocating credit. In the first instance, the regulators encouraged banks to treat mortgage loans as low risk. In the second case, they encouraged banks to treat all European sovereign debt as low risk. See The Regulator’s Calculation Problem.

The irony is that after messing up credit markets, the regulators ask for and receive more power. With the sub-prime crisis, the regulators were rewarded with Dodd-Frank. I presume that the ultimate outcome of the Greek crisis will be similar.

Anil Kashyap on Greece

Probably the best analysis so far. Mostly, it is a recap of the past. But in talking about the pending referendum, he writes,

if the public sides with Tsipras government, then there will be a very sharp recession over the next few months. Tax collection is likely to collapse. The Tsipras government is unlikely to survive the economic collapse.

He also writes,

Greece should have defaulted in 2010. Its debt burden then was unsustainable and nothing since then has changed this. It is true that financial markets were much more jittery at that time, but the money that was raised to pay off the creditors in that bailout could have been diverted to support Greece and other weak countries. Once the bad rescue of 2010 was undertaken, it was inevitable that some form of debt relief was going to be necessary.

Imagine how different the political dynamics in Europe would have been if the German and French banks had been explicitly bailed out.

Pointer from John Cochrane (and from Greg Mankiw and James Hamilton). Of course, I think that explicit bailouts are exactly what the political system will not allow. Even going forward, I still think that “opaque bailout” is the most likely outcome. But I also think that there are some lessons for us.

1. At some point, you do run out of other people’s money (that is actually more true for us than for Greece, because we are bigger and therefore harder to bail out).

2. When you run out of other people’s money, political tensions rise considerably. See my essay Lenders and Spenders.

I Was (somewhat) Right About Greece

I wrote,

I think that the route by which German money gets to the Greek government will be opaque and circuitous for face-saving reasons, but I expect such an outcome.

The WSJ writes,

Greece‘s latest bailout repayment to the International Monetary Fund may turn out to be one of the debt-saddled nation’s least expensive payments ever.

The article goes on to describe what it calls a “shell game,” a shorter way of saying “opaque and circuitous.”

Economists and Greece: Finish the Sentence

Greece will achieve economic success when ____.

My inclination is to feel as unable to complete the sentence as I was the similar sentence about peace in the Middle East. Yet Simon Wren-Lewis writes,

To be able to say intelligent stuff about what is going on at the moment (which you would hope an economics education would enable you to do), you need to know quite a lot of economic theory. A lot of macro of course, but quite a bit of finance, and also at least some game theory. . .And if you want to get into all those ‘reforms’ imposed by the Troika, you need a lot of micro.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

To be fair, Wren-Lewis is saying that knowledge of these topics is necessary in order to offer opinions on Greece. He is not claiming that it is sufficient to finish the sentence.

I just want to emphasize the extent of our ignorance here. Somebody with legitimate training in mainstream economics could easily argue that the best thing for Greece right now would be to get off the Euro. After all, many mainstream economists, perhaps a majority, would say that it was a mistake for Greece to go on the Euro in the first place. Still, there are many other mainstream economists who would argue that it would be better for Greece to remain in the Euro.

As for supply-side reforms, the economic analysis is the easy part. The hard part is dealing with the historical and cultural baggage of the country.

If you forced me to take my best shot at addressing the historical and cultural baggage, I would be inclined to fill in the sentence with “some time after the government runs out of other people’s money.” But there are many economists who would disagree.

In any case, my prediction is that this will not happen soon. Again, I think that the route by which German money gets to the Greek government will be opaque and circuitous for face-saving reasons, but I expect such an outcome. Note: I gather that Tyler Cowen assesses the situation differently. I think we agree that it is possible to claim a symbolic win and take a substantive loss, we just disagree as to which party is most likely to end up doing that.

How to Live Beyond Your Means

1. The WaPo reports,

Today, they struggle under nearly $1 million in debt that they will never be able to repay on the 3,292-square-foot, six-bedroom, red-brick Colonial they bought for $617,055 in 2005. The Boatengs have not made a mortgage payment in 2,322 days — more than six years — according to their most recent mortgage statement. Their plight illustrates how some of the people swallowed up by the easy credit era of the previous decade have yet to reemerge years later.

Living rent-free in a $600,000 house is a “plight” only in the sense that at some point you may have to stop.

2. John Cochrane relays,

80% of Greek debt is now in the hands of “foreign official.” Now you know why nobody is worrying about “contagion” anymore. The negotiation is entirely which government will pay.

I must be really old-fashioned or something. But paying taxes so that Greek governments can live beyond their means or that people can live in houses twice the size of mine rent-free is not really my idea of “the things we all do together.”

Yanis Varoufakis talks with Russ Roberts

He says,

You and I would not be talking about Greece today if Greece in 1999 by some miracle of politics and rationality had stayed out of the Eurozone. That is the reason why it is such a disaster; and it’s why it’s so significant in the world economy and pipsqueak Greece has been dominating for three years. The headlines of [?] which is a sign that something is definitely wrong with the international economy. And the reason for that was that Greece was in the Eurozone. The tragedy of course is once you are in, you can’t get out. You are trapped. And so on and so forth.

The podcast is a year old. It is of interest now because he is now finance minister of Greece.

What’s In Alexis Tsipras’ Wallet?

He is soon to be the Greek premier. The Independent reports,

A Syriza government would have to rely on taxes but tax revenues are down as people wait to see if taxes will be reduced by the new government. This means that Greece may only have the money – though this is disputed by Syriza leaders – until the end of February to pay state employees and pensions and service the debt.

As a far leftist, we can presume he wants to spend lots of other people’s money. Where can he get it?

1. Greek taxpayers. Greece actually was supposed to run a primary surplus this year, meaning that they would only have to borrow to pay interest on debt, not to fund ordinary spending. But apparently the Greek taxpayers do not see it that way. UPDATE: Tony Yates points out a problem even if you have a primary surplus and decide to blow off the interest on your debt. (pointer from Mark Thoma),

the Greek government does not have the funds to stand behind its own banks. They would be left insolvent by a Greek default [economically, they are already, really]. A run on Greek banks, either prompted by default or the threat of it, could not be stemmed by a credible guarantee of deposits.

2. Non-bank investors willing to invest in Greek bonds. Considering that Tsipras does not sound particularly eager to pay off such investors, they might be a bit shy.

3. Banks willing to invest in Greek bonds, since those bonds carry zero risk (according to capital regulations). Still, I can imagine that bank managers are a tad worried that the regulators who designated sovereign debt as risk-free don’t actually have any money with which to back that up.

4. The European Central Bank, which just announced a big “quantitative easing” program, so it needs stuff to buy. The question is how eager Germany and other European countries are to be Tsipras’ sugar daddies.

Pointers in (1) and (4) from Tyler Cowen. Possible outcomes, in order from highest probability to lowest:

1. Eurocrats devise a new elaborate shell game under which they funnel money from other countries to Tsipras while pretending not to do so, hoping that ordinary voters in those countries will not notice, or that even if people notice they will be powerless to do anything about it.

2. The European central bank goes ahead and buys bonds from Tsipras, because the alternative is scarier.

3. Tsipras ends up implementing austerity, because his wallet is empty.

4. Tsipras ends up printing a new Greek currency, as Greece exits the Euro.

The European Debt Crisis–Not Quite Over

Theodore Pelagidis writes,

The latest polls put Syriza ahead by 5-7 points, as angry voters from across the political spectrum get behind the party. It’s not surprising. This “supermarket” party promises almost everything to anyone, masking its policies with romantic pledges to stop humanitarian crises, to make the black market and bureaucracy disappear, to increase the minimum wage and minimum pension by around 40 percent (despite the fact that the social security system is in bad shape) and, last but not least, to negotiate a huge amount of debt forgiveness, mainly by having–sorry, ordering—the European Central Bank to buy most of it.

Have a nice day.

Europe Still in Trouble

Barry Eichengreen and Ugo Panizza write,

For the debts of European countries to be sustainable, their governments will have to run large primary budget surpluses. But there are both political and economic reasons to question whether this is possible. The evidence presented in this column is not optimistic about Europe’s crisis countries. Whereas large primary surpluses for extended periods of time did occur in the past, they were always associated with exceptional circumstances.

Pointer from Mark Thoma. Read the whole thing. Shorter version: Have a nice day.