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.

Cyprus: Have a Nice Day

The New York Times reports

In the early hours of Saturday morning, after 10 hours of talks, finance ministers from euro area countries, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank agreed on terms that include a one-time tax of 9.9 percent on Cypriot bank deposits of more than 100,000 euros, and a tax of 6.75 percent on smaller deposits, European Union officials said.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen, who thought it worthy of a follow-up. A couple of further thoughts:

My understanding is that the depositors would receive bank equity in exchange for debt. No one believes that this will make them happy. (Perhaps the depositors should be asked to read Admati and Hellwig?) In fact, every economist I have read has pretty much the same reaction as mine to this policy.

While a surprise tax on bank deposits may seem like the best idea that the eurocrats could come up with under the circumstances, it might not bode well for the longer term. In terms of the two drunks model, this looks like both drunks falling down without making it home.

Consider: Suppose that you hold bank deposits in a bank in a fiscally troubled country, such as Italy, Portugal, Spain, or Japan. You are deciding whether to keep those deposits there. Until Friday, you had not considered that the government might confiscate a portion of your deposits. Now, how much assurance do you need that your deposits will not be suddenly taxed in order to keep you from running to your bank and shifting your funds elsewhere? Solve for the equilibrium, as Tyler would say.

Banks and Government

The second of my essays on the function of banks. In this one, I talk about their relationship with government.

Think of two friends who walk to a neighborhood bar every Saturday night. On a given Saturday, the first friend may be too drunk to walk without assistance, and he may have to lean on the second friend in order to make it home. The following Saturday, it could be the second friend who needs to be supported in order to get home. However, if both of them get too drunk and try to lean on one another to get home, they may collapse together.

This is how I picture the current situation in Europe. Many European banks are unsteady. They need government guarantees and capital injections in order to stay in business. At the same time, many European governments are heavily indebted and running large deficits. They need banks to continue to lend to them in order to fund their spending.

Read the whole thing. My prescription for addressing the relationship between banks and governments is to try to apply the approach of “limited guarantees, for limited purposes.”

The Greek Phillips Curve

Tyler Cowen writes,

Prices are sticky, AD is falling, and almost all of the adjustment is in quantities. Yet this still doesn’t explain why prices are inching up, and furthermore it is grossly at variance with the actual empirical literature on price stickiness (much neglected in the blogosphere I should add), which is not nearly as strong as wage stickiness.

This is one of several explanations Tyler finds unsatisfactory for the fact that unemployment is so high in Greece and yet inflation is still greater than zero there. In a follow-up, he writes,

For a simple point of comparison, the rate of U.S. price deflation in 1932 was greater than ten percent with overall deflation running at about twenty-five percent over a period of a few years. More recently, Japan had nine straight years of core CPI deflation and Greece cannot even manage anything close to that. Just what is the Greek Phillips Curve supposed to look like?

I recommend a recent article by Marga Peeter and Ard den Reijer. I may be confused about what I am reading, but it appears to me that the Phillips Curve in Greece shifted adversely over a period of a decade. To put this another way, the natural rate of unemployment in Greece may be quite high.

If my reading is correct, then aggregate demand policies, including converting to a cheaper currency, would not do much for Greece. If workers’ reservation wages are high relative to productivity, you are going to have a lot of unemployment.