Opinion

The Great Debate

Why regulation — on yogurt and more — is blocking Greece’s recovery

The news that Greek-style yogurt maker Chobani is looking to sell a minority stake that would value the company at around $2.5 billion should in theory be a big boost for Greece’s beleaguered dairy industry.

But instead, the main beneficiary will be Chobani’s Turkish founder, who operates the company in upstate New York, and who has proved to be innovative in a way that Greek dairy farmers are not. In fact, they are so stuck in their traditional ways that it’s actually illegal in Greece to call low-fat yogurt “yogurt.” Any variant that contains additives of any sort must be labeled “dessert of yogurt,” which is akin to waving a warning flag at consumers.

That sort of rigid regulation is the norm in Greece, and not just in agriculture. Examples abound. There’s a rule dating back to the 1970s that prohibits producers of apple vinegar from packaging it in anything other than one liter bottles. Another set of regulations, this time from the 1980s, outlaws bulk sales of mayonnaise and the import of some types of cloves. Supermarkets are prohibited from selling aspirin. Fresh milk is required by law to have a shelf life of just five days. As for olive oil, one of the staples of the Mediterranean diet and an important source of revenue for the Greek economy, producers are strictly forbidden from blending it with vegetable oil for domestic consumption. The rationale: olive oil is at the core of the Greek diet, and the health of the population is at stake.

These rules are among the hundreds of restrictive business practices in Greece that a team from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development identified last year, as part of an 11-month investigation commissioned by the Greek government. In its report the OECD made 329 recommendations for rules that should be changed to open up competition and give a much-needed boost to the economy.

Quantifying the cost of these restrictions is a difficult task, but in 66 cases, the international experts did figure out a way to do so. Eliminating them would lead to a positive effect on the Greek economy of 5.2 billion euros, or just over $7 billion, they calculated. While that may not seem like a huge sum, in today’s Greece, every penny counts. Kostis Hatzidakis, the Greek minister for Development and Competitiveness, is promising action “very soon” to retire some of the most intrusive rules that he says are holding back his nation’s competitiveness.

America’s long search for Mr. Right

What’s wrong with central casting? It’s a virtual truism: The United States always seems to pick the wrong guy to star as George Washington in some faraway civil war. We sell him weapons for self-defense against his despicable foes — and then, sometimes before the end of the first battle, we find we are committed to a bad actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Genghis Khan.

President Barack Obama just approved the sale of 24 Apache helicopters to the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — despite well-founded concerns that Maliki may use them against people we do like as well as those we don’t.

Helicopters aren’t the only munitions on Maliki’s shopping list. Washington has negotiated the sale of 480 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, along with reconnaissance drones and F-16 fighter jets.

Greek bailout sham

Driven by its bailout loan terms, the Greek Parliament recently voted to lay off 25,000 more public employees. The public has responded with demonstrations while striking public sector workers try to disrupt air and rail travel, law enforcement and medical care.

How did Greece get to this point, where creditors dictate what jobs the government should cut as a condition for continued bailout loans, and where its outraged citizens take to the streets? What are the chances that Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ newest plans to fire or cut salaries of thousands of government employees will work?

The fact is that Greece’s fortunes have been deteriorating since its entry into the Economic and Monetary Union and the ascension of corrupt politicians, who don’t care about the country’s future. Essentially, they have sold much of Greece’s wealth at bargain-basement prices and used the nation as collateral.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Austerity is a moral issue

Security worker opens the door of a government job center as people wait to enter in Marbella, Spain, December 2, 2011. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

In the nearly five years since the worst financial crash since the Great Depression, the remedy for the world’s economic doldrums has swung from full-on Keynesianism to unforgiving austerity and back.

The initial Keynesian response halted the collapse in economic activity. But it was soon met by borrowers’ remorse in the shape of paying down debt and raising taxes without delay. In the last year, full-throttle austerity has fallen out of favor with those charged with monitoring the world economy.

The year ahead in the euro zone: Lower risks, same problems

Financial conditions in the euro zone have significantly improved since the summer, when euro zone risks peaked because of German policymakers’ open consideration of a Greek exit, and the sovereign spreads of Italy and Spain reached new heights. The day before European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s famous speech in London in which he announced that the ECB would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, bond yields in Spain and Italy were at 7.75 percent and 6.75 percent, respectively, and rising. When the ECB announced its outright monetary transactions (OMT) bond-buying program, the euro zone was at risk of a collapse.

Since then, risks have abated significantly, thanks to a number of factors:

    The ECB’s OMT has been incredibly successful in reducing the risks of breakup, redenomination and a liquidity/rollover crisis in the public debt markets of Spain and Italy. Although the ECB has yet to spend a single additional euro to buy the bonds of Spain and Italy, both short-term and longer-term sovereign spreads against German bonds have fallen substantially. Following a number of political and legal hurdles, the successful operational start of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) rescue fund provides the euro zone with another €500 billion of official resources to backstop banks and sovereigns in the euro zone periphery, on top of the leftover funds of its predecessor, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). Realizing that a monetary union is not viable without deeper integration, euro zone leaders have proposed a banking union, a fiscal union, an economic union and, eventually, a political union. The last is necessary to resolve any issue of democratic legitimacy that might result from national states transferring power from national governments to EU- or euro zone-wide institutions. This transfer of power also would have to involve the creation of such institutions to ensure solidarity and risk-sharing are developed in the banking, fiscal and economic unions. The open talk in the summer by some German authorities about an exit option for Greece has turned into a tentative willingness to prevent and postpone such an exit. There are several reasons for this. First, Greece has done some austerity and reforms in spite of a deepening recession, and the current coalition is holding up. Second, an orderly exit of Greece is impossible until Spain and Italy are successfully isolated. Such an exit would lead to massive contagion, which would hurt not only the euro zone periphery but also the core, given extensive trade and financial links. Third, an economic disaster in Greece would be damaging to the CDU Party’s chances of winning the German elections. Thus, even when Greece inevitably underperforms on its policy commitments, Germany and the troika (the IMF, EU and ECB) will hold their noses and keep the funds flowing as long as the current coalition holds up.

Given these developments, the risk of a Greek exit in 2013 has been significantly reduced, even if the risk of an eventual Greek exit from the euro zone is still high, close to 50 percent by my estimation. Meanwhile, the narrowing of Spanish and Italian sovereign spreads has significantly diminished the risk that either country will fully lose market access and be forced to undergo a full troika bailout like Greece, Portugal and Ireland. Both Spain and Italy may in 2013 opt for a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that opens the taps of ESM and OMT support, but such official financing would inspire confidence as it would not be associated with rising, unsustainable spreads and a loss of market access.

While there is a much lower likelihood of disorderly events in the euro zone, there are still significant obstacles to deeper integration, as well as country-specific economic and political vulnerabilities. The biggest obstacle to the formation of a banking, fiscal, economic and political union is that Germany is pushing back against the time line for action, with the initial skirmish on ECB supervision of euro zone banks. This backpedaling reflects deep German skepticism on whether the resolution of the euro zone crisis requires a move toward greater union. Without a more credible commitment to austerity and reforms from euro zone periphery countries, lurching forward would imply that risk-sharing will turn into a large, long-term transfer union, which is unacceptable to Germany and the core. Thus, Germany will do whatever is necessary to delay the integration process, at least until after elections in fall 2013.

Decisive euro action is needed at the G20 summit

The European crisis is no longer a European crisis. It is now everyone’s. Unless Monday’s G20 summit in Mexico coordinates a concerted global action plan right now, we face a global slowdown that will also have a deep impact on the U.S. presidential election and even on China’s transition to a new leadership. This is the last chance.

The standard, but often empty, language of summit communiqués will simply not do when the euro area is finally approaching its own day of reckoning. Whichever way the Greeks vote in Sunday’s election, a chaotic exit from the euro is becoming more likely: Its tax revenues are collapsing, not rising as promised. Unable to regain access to markets, Portugal and Ireland will soon have to ask for their second IMF programs. Sadly Italy – and potentially even France – may soon follow Spain in needing finance as the European recession deepens. Even German banks, which are some of the most highly leveraged, are not immune from needing more capital.

At G8 and G20 summits, world leaders have tended to be mere spectators as Europe has gone from one failed intervention to another. Now they must move decisively as they did in 2009. They must not leave Mexico without agreeing to support a big European firewall to stop contagion. And they must construct a global growth initiative for East and West.

from MacroScope:

The Law of Diminishing Greeks

The Law of Diminishing Returns  states that a continuing push towards a given goal tends to  decline in effectiveness after a certain amount of effort has been expended. If this weren't the case, Usain Bolt would be able to run the mile in  less than 2-1/2 minutes.

From an economic standpoint, this law now seems to be fully in force in Greece. The latest jobs figures from the twice-bailed out euro zone country paint a bleak numerical picture of the impact of unrelenting austerity in ordinary Greeks, regardless of whether it was self-inflicted or not. To wit:

More than one in five Greeks is unemployed.

There are more young people without a job than with one.

The record 1.08 million people  without work in January was a  47 percent tumble  in a year.

A good deal for Greece, its creditors, and Europe

Amid all the doom and gloom about Greece in the last few weeks, it is easy to overlook an important piece of good news: the debt exchange offer published by Greece on Friday with endorsement by its main private and official creditors. If implemented, this would be a major achievement and an important step toward overcoming the euro zone crisis, almost regardless of what happens next.

Under the offer, bondholders would receive 15 percent of the face value of their bonds in the form of short-term European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) bonds, plus a set of new Greek sovereign bonds maturing between 2023 and 2042, with a 31.5 percent face value.

This agreement is a very good deal for Greece. The combination of the cut in face values, lower coupons and (in most cases) longer maturity implies a debt reduction of about 60 percent in present value terms (evaluated at a 5 percent discount rate). Assuming high participation (about €200 billion in bonds), this translates into savings of about €120 billion, or 54 percent of Greece’s 2011 GDP. This is very large. By comparison, the Argentine exchange of January 2005, the previous high-water mark, generated present value of debt relief of only about 29 percent of GDP, because although the per-dollar debt reduction was higher, the volume exchanged was much smaller.

from Ian Bremmer:

Europe’s necessary creative destruction

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

What we’re seeing in Europe -- in rising Italian borrowing costs and the felling of two prime ministers -- is the growing impatience of the markets for a resolution to the euro zone crisis. To put a finer point on it, the hive mind of the markets has decided it is not going to give Europe enough time to get its act together. The big institutions that drive the world’s economies are sitting on huge amounts of cash -- enough to solve many of these problems overnight. But they have lost confidence in the ability of the European political system to deliver solutions that will work.

In a G-Zero world, where there is no strong global leader to direct the course of events, no one is interested in taking a flier on helping the Europeans get out of their mess. As the abortive G-20 conference showed last week, there is no backstop for any country or institution that makes an error in today’s environment, whether it’s tiny MF Global or the Chinese sovereign debt fund. In the postwar era, the Marshall Plan was the very definition of global security -- it was a huge commitment by the U.S. to rebuild Europe into the economic force (and not incidentally, trading partner) that the world needed. Today, there is no Marshall plan for Europe, from within or without.

That’s the high-level view of the Europe situation. The question everyone wants answered is this: what happens next? Start with Greece: the best possible outcome for that country has happened with Papandreou’s resignation and the selection of economist Lucas Papademos as Prime Minister of an emergency government. Papademos is committed to remaining in the euro and accepting the terms of the Greek bailout package. Despite the roller coaster ride Papandreou took his country and the euro zone on, Greece has now moved closer to the Spanish and Portuguese models for avoiding the debt crisis drama. In Greece, a resolution is starting to be reached. It’s not the beginning of the end, but maybe this is the end of the beginning.

from Edward Hadas:

What is the morality of debt?

Debt is a moral matter. While most economic activity is concerned with the “is” of how things are (investment, consumption and so forth), debts are always entwined with an “ought” – to repay. In discussing controversial debts--for example government borrowing in the euro zone and the U.S.--the moral question should be addressed directly: should these debts be paid off in full, or is some forgiveness justified?

Aristotle can help frame the argument. The philosopher condemned all lending at interest because money cannot create wealth by itself; a loan is just a way for the lender to take advantage of the borrower. Some proponents of Islamic finance make a similar argument, but it is not quite right. Capitalism has shown that loans can indeed produce wealth. If the lent funds are invested well, enabling the borrower to improve his lot and the world’s, then interest payments are the lender’s just reward for providing the fruitful funds.

But Aristotle’s moral logic remains relevant; his condemnation is appropriate for loans which do not share wealth justly between borrower and lender. Unfair loans should not be made, and where they have been, full repayment only compounds the original injustice.

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