Europe struggles with bad choices

June 6, 2011

By Mohamed El-Erian
The opinions expressed are his own.

Very few of us like to be confronted with unpleasant choices. If we are, we will tend to delay a decision. And if forced to make one, we will likely opt for the choice that, in our minds at least, seems less disruptive upfront — even if we know it is likely to involve discomfort down the road.

This simple human analogy is critical in understanding why Europe’s increasingly ugly debt crisis refuses to go away. It sheds light on the choices made up to now; and it speaks to why an increasingly incoherent policy response will likely end up in tears for Greece and potentially other European economies and institutions.

Let us wind the clock back to just over a year ago when Europe first bailed out Greece, a country no longer able to pay its bills. Together with two monetary institutions — the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — European politicians faced unpleasant choices and had to respond. But rather than decisively addressing the problem, they essentially opted to kick the can down the road.

There were, and still are two main reasons for Greece’s predicament: The country borrowed way too much; and it failed to grow its economy on a sustained basis. This lethal combination was amplified by weak public administration.

Yet the rescue of Greece involved making new loans to the country and was asking for a very ambitious fiscal adjustment effort. Neither the size of the debt nor growth reinvigoration were properly addressed.

I suspect this choice was not driven by a strong conviction that the approach would work. Rather, decision makers feared the complexity of the alternative which involved opting for a pre-emptive, and hopefully orderly debt restructuring, and placing much greater emphasis on structural reforms.

A year later, Greece is still in the financial intensive care unit, and needs renewed urgent attention by the “troika” of doctors — from the European Commission, ECB and the IMF.

Regrettably, the country’s condition is even more serious now, with every single one of its vitals worse than projected by these same doctors a year ago.

The economy has contracted by more than programmed: unemployment is higher, debt and deficit dynamics are worse and, with market risks measures of spreads at even more alarming levels, the country is further away from restoring access to normal capital market financing.

Understandably, the Greek government is under intense pressure at home from a population that is being asked to sacrifice tremendously but sees virtually no improvements on the horizon. Coordination among lenders is becoming more difficult as two related concerns fuel ever-growing bickering: what has happened to all the money that has already been disbursed? And, why are so many dubious liabilities being transferred to taxpayers from private creditors, who were paid an interest rate premium to take an informed risk?

No wonder Europe’s approach to its debt crisis is losing credibility. In the process, the institutional integrity of some key institutions is being undermined.

This is particularly true for the ECB which now finds its balance sheet saddled with billions of Euros of Greek bonds. Some were purchased in a failed attempt to counter the surge in Greece’s risk spreads; others are related to repo operations that have kept afloat an essentially bankrupt Greek banking system.

When you think of it, none of this should really come as a surprise to Europe’s decision makers. At its root, the approach to solving Greece’s excessive debt problem was to pile new debt on top of old debt; and the accompanying medication served more to reduce growth than improve the structural drivers of a sustained economy expansion.

Despite this obvious diagnosis, the doctors are essentially at it again; and the patient, already weakened, is forced to commit to yet greater sacrifices. Thus, Greece will get more debt-creating financing in exchange for even larger fiscal austerity.

However, it is not entirely all déjà vu. It seems that there will be two tweaks in the days ahead.

The first, involving a more structured privatization initiative, will look good on paper but is unlikely to deliver much. The second is more promising, if pursued properly. It entails “convincing” private creditors to renew their maturing loans to Greece rather than exit completely.

Notwithstanding these modifications, I fear that this new rescue of Greece will, again, only kick the can down the road. It will not materially improve Greece’s solvency outlook; nor will it do much to promote growth and employment. What it will do is fuel more social unrest in Greece and intensify tensions within the official creditor community.

There is one silver lining here. In again opting for the seemingly easier but ultimately unsustainable choice, the troika is giving other potentially vulnerable parts of Europe more time to get their house in order — thereby reducing contagion risk.

Some countries, like Spain, are taking advantage of this window. Under the guidance of the central bank, the savings banks (“cajas”) are getting serious about strengthening their capital buffers. Such capital raising should be pursued aggressively by more banks across the Euro-zone. And, hopefully, the ECB is discussing how to navigate its weakened balance sheet through the minefield of an inevitable Greek debt restructuring.

So is this tradeoff — persisting with a costly approach for Greece in order to buy time for the rest of Europe — worth it? As much as I would like to say yes, I worry that the answer is likely to be no.

First, Greece is not the only country in this highly unfortunate situation. Ireland and Portugal face similar debt and growth challenges, though somewhat less severe. Given that the troika is applying the same remedy there too, the overall cost of this unsustainable approach is even larger.

Second, the money being transferred to private creditors could be used more efficiently in safeguarding the European system directly, thus reducing vulnerability to contagion risk.

Finally, the viability of simply kicking the can down the road is undermined by growing cooperation challenges — between Greece and the troika, and within each group in this tragedy.

As Europe finalizes its new bailout of Greece over the next few days, it would be well advised to keep these considerations in mind. It is not too late to correct the course, and opt for a choice that is unpleasant upfront but offers a greater chance of success over the longer term.

Photos, top to bottom: Protesters raise arms in front of the Greek parliament during a rally against austerity economic measures and corruption in Athens’ Constitution (Syntagma) square June 5, 2011. The protest, on its twelfth day, was organized through a Facebook group called “The Indignant”. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol; Employees of the Hellenic Postbank push a mock money box during a rally against government’s privatisation plans in Athens June 2, 2011. Greece wants to sell its entire 34 percent stake in the lender by the end of the year as part of a goal to raise 50 billion euros by 2015 to pay down its debt mountain. REUTERS/Yiorgos Karahalis


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One day, a year from today chances are the problem will disappear.

Posted by G_Hiotis | Report as abusive

I thought ‘quack’ medicine had been outlawed.Bleeding patients with blood-sucking leaches somehow never seemed to work very well.The current crop of ‘dismal scientists’ at the E.C.B/I.M.F./EU. don’t seem to be faring much better.Why not try some ‘Voodoo’ economics? Anyone up for a D….E….F….A….U…L…T?

Posted by 7trickpony | Report as abusive

A former Bank of Ireland CEO. ,Mike Soden suggested in Irelands’ Sunday Independent that Ireland be given 30 years to pay off debts to the EU.It seems on the face of it a very sensible suggestion.Perhaps the same time-frame could be considered for all the European debtor nations.He suggested additionally that the first 10 years would consist of interest-only payments for Ireland.At least someone is trying to think ‘outside the box’!

Posted by 7trickpony | Report as abusive

Greece spent last year’s bailout money twice as fast as was intended. They will obviously be even less able to repay a larger debt.

So Europe wants to give Greece more bailout money? That is certainly not a sound investment. Rather it is international bankers directing the flow of public moneys in series of desperate attempts at stabilizing the worldwide debt situation.

The aftershocks launched by the Collapse of 2007/2008 continue to reverberate around the world.

If you are a member of the public, another bailout of Greece is an unsound investment that will eventually effect you in an adverse way. When that much money is wasted, many things that should happen, don’t…

and many things that should not happen are now unavoidable.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive

Under EU set up Greece is a sovereign state. Decisions are finally made by Athens Govt – not ECB/IMF and EU Commission. That’s why the issue of intervening directly into how Greece employs or uses the aid money is a serious management issue. End game being – no further aid or handouts unless housecleaning is done in a more realistic and transparent manner.

Recall father of current PM was Prof of Economics at Berkely before he took over from the Greek Colonels! Once we introduced Euro,under Maastricht Treaty, it was his gamesmanship to not only find ways and means to justify entry into Euro zone but, as he said then, *milk the EU cow*.

Posted by hariknaidu | Report as abusive

Excellent article. I would just add that I think the chances of doing anything beyond “kicking the can down the road” are lessened by the ongoing pattern of denials of the true extent of the problems faced in Greece and elsewhere. Too much importance placed on perceptions, too little placed on reality, something certainly not limited to Europe.

Posted by FlBob | Report as abusive

Greece should seek the advice of Goldman Sacks on selling its state healthcare and pension programs. GS has a penchant for selling crappy investments, and might succeed in finding a taker.

Posted by SanPa | Report as abusive

Well said, Mohamed El-Erian.

You asked the crucial question:

“And, why are so many dubious liabilities being transferred to taxpayers from private creditors, who were paid an interest rate premium to take an informed risk?”

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

Greek Economic structure,made of small enterprises,
is perfect for not paying taxes.El-Erian,please,don’t
forget this problem.

Posted by SteveP | Report as abusive

Those concerns about Europe and Greece are simply ridiculous. So what happens if they simply don’t do anything? Yes, Greece goes bust, so what? Europe will survive and so will euro. One cannot avoid an impression that it is a campaign to distract attention from something else, perhaps the looming growth slowdown and, as a consequence, a new trade shock.

Posted by tk2 | Report as abusive

It is painful to default but, sooner or later Hellas will default. It should not have joined the EU to begin with. Greece was not ready for the the single monetary system. The small countries are at a deep economic disadvantage to the larger industrialized States.
The tax payers bailing out the risk taking creditors is not playing well on both sides of the Atlantic. Everyone is trying to dodge the bullet; in most cases… the gambler usually takes it, not innocent people.
The more demands, on Greece, set by the creditor nations will only create more havoc for the entire system. The EU is going to commit suicide by killing Greece

Posted by Manoli | Report as abusive

“…why are so many dubious liabilities being transferred to taxpayers from private creditors…?” Mohamed knows the answer. It’s because governments do what is otherwise illegal in the finance world: They imply to private investors that their bonds are guaranteed as to the timely payment of principal and interest. Furthermore, all debtor nations are running what is essentially Ponzi Schemes which depend on continuously attracting buyers. If private investors flee the debt of any nation it is doomed. Yet, the handwriting is on the wall – not only for Europe, but for all of us.

Posted by beofaction | Report as abusive

Unless the Greek government announces measures to stimulate private initiative and development with a primary focus on exports of high added value products, the trade balance will continue to weigh against the Greek economy and the prospects of a recovery will remain grim.

Posted by deltamike | Report as abusive

Multi Millionaire Trader and Investor Vince Stanzione stated “This bailout is not helping Greece they are protecting the French, German and other Eurozone banks that have plenty of suspect loans to Greece that they do not want to rightdown” “in the end the market and the “evil spectators” will take matters in to their own hands and do what the EU will not. Greece will eventually do what Iceland did and will be far better off.

Posted by vince7777 | Report as abusive

I believe that it will be handy to read below article in CNN. The greeks should question where their money goes

Greeks pour money into London property pdated June 3, 2011
Greece’s debt spiral is having some surprising consequences for London’s Greek community. CNN’s Nina dos Santos reports. iness/2011/06/02/santos.londons.greeks.c nn

Posted by London-Athen | Report as abusive

It is always hard to give up privileges already enjoyed. The Greeks will adapt and in time get their ship in order. Ireland will do the same. The Europeans are heading the right direction and will work out the details as they move forwards. There needs to be more efficiency in some of their economies and a tighter control on costs. I am more concerned about the U.S. and the highly partisan politics that are affecting any attempt to deal with our problems. The Republican’s economics are outdated yet they continue to call for reduced regulation and reduced taxes…. the very same agenda that created our fiscal problems!

Posted by abkisa | Report as abusive