Greek talks descend into finger-pointing

February 6, 2012
This isn't good; the Greece talks have now moved past their clear deadline and have reached the finger-pointing stage.

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This isn’t good; the Greece talks have now moved past their clear deadline and have reached the finger-pointing stage. The broad outline of the dynamics here is now very clear: you need three different parties to agree on a deal for the whole thing to have a chance of success. Private-sector bondholders need to agree to a very deep cut in the value of their bonds; the Greek government needs to agree to enormous spending cuts over and above the 1.5% of GDP that they’ve already offered; and the Troika of the EU, ECB, and IMF needs to agree to pony up extra bailout money to cover the larger-than-expected deficits that Greece is running.

Of the three, the bondholders are the least of anybody’s problems. In fact, almost everything they’ve done in recent months can be viewed as a way of showing that if and when everything goes pear-shaped, it’s not their fault. They will talk to anybody, agree to pretty much anything, and be perfectly reasonable all along; it’s the various governments, here, which are finding it impossible to come to terms.

And it’s easy to see why. The Greek economy is in a very severe recession, exacerbated by the spending cuts already imposed. Every extra euro cut will only serve to shrink the economy even further — and no country in the history of finance has ever achieved a sustainable debt level by reducing its GDP. It almost doesn’t matter whether government spending on things like unemployment benefits is too high on an absolute level: if you cut it now, you doom the Greek economy to perpetual recession, and Greek society to ever-greater levels of political unrest.

On the other hand, you can see why German taxpayers — or anybody else in the rest of Europe, for that matter — have no particular inclination to continue to pay for Greece’s high benefits, especially when the Greek government seems incapable of raising the taxes needed to pay for those benefits itself, and when, as Euro Group president Jean-Claude Juncker says, “there are elements of corruption at all levels of the public administration”.

The result is an impasse which, the longer it goes on, the harder it becomes to break; the Troika won’t even let the Greeks do a bilateral deal with bondholders unless and until there’s a much bigger agreement between Greece and Europe. Which means, in turn, that the bondholders are staring down a worst-case scenario — a default outside the context of any kind of negotiated exchange offer — through no fault of their own at all.

The Troika doesn’t want that — banks across Europe would suffer much-greater-than-necessary losses as a result, both on their Greek holdings and on their holdings of newly-endangered debt from Portugal and other countries on Europe’s periphery. But at this point, it’s probably easier for France and Germany to bail out their domestic banks directly for their sovereign-debt losses than it is for them to shovel any more cash in Greece’s direction.

If the Troika fails to save Greece, the past 66 years of ever-increasing European unity will come to a sudden and drastic halt, and all eyes will turn to Portugal, asking if it will be next. (The Europeans will say no, and indeed already the ECB seems to be pre-emptively shoring up Portuguese bond prices; the bond markets will say yes.) There will also be a second sovereign default, sooner rather than later, in Cyprus, and at that point the European and international communities will have essentially no credibility in terms of its ability to prevent dominoes from falling.

But I’ve never seen less appetite, at the European level, for a policy of continuing to kick the can down the road. Which means that there’s a very good chance that the long-awaited and long-feared crunch might soon be upon us. Greece and the Troika might not be able to agree on whether the latest deadline has been missed, but there’s one deadline no one can move: March 20, when Greece’s big €14 billion bond issue comes due. Either there’s an exchange offer in place by that point — or else the European project will have failed.


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