The Greek people have already paid highly for their own governments’ mistakes. Photo: Getty
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The Greek people have paid for their governments’ mistakes – and for the errors of the Troika

The meltdown in Athens and the mistakes of the IMF.

To make sense of the confrontation between the Syriza government in Greece and the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund), it is vital to understand the one big mistake that each side made. The mistake on the Greek side is well known. In the years following the formation of the eurozone, the Greek government borrowed far more than it should, sometimes secretly. When the full extent of that fiscal profligacy became known, the financial markets realised that default was a distinct possibility, and the government was no longer able to borrow from them.

Over the next few years the Troika provided large sums of money to “bail out Greece”. The minor share of that provided new loans to the Greek government so that it could gradually balance its books. When Greece complains about the austerity imposed on it by the Troika, it is important to understand that without Troika assistance it would have had to endure something even worse and far more immediate. The government was spending much more than it received in taxes, and from the moment it stopped being able to borrow from the markets it would have had to end this. Almost certainly the banking system would have collapsed, and the government would not have had the resources to support its banks.

The Troika’s big mistake was what it did with the larger part of its rescue package. If it had done nothing, the Greek government would have been forced to default on its debt, and those who owned that debt (Greece’s creditors) would have received very little or nothing. Instead, the Troika partly bailed out these creditors, who included many of their own leading banks, in Germany and France in particular. In effect, what the Troika did was to buy much of the Greek government debt owned by these private-sector institutions, at discounted prices. From the Greek government’s point of view, this replaced private-sector debt with debt owned by the Troika.

Why was this partial bailout of Greece’s private-sector creditors a mistake? It meant that the remainder of the rescue package, designed to ease the Greek government’s transition to balance, was far too small. The Troika thought that the Greek government could quickly cut spending and raise taxes with little consequence for the rest of the Greek economy. It was completely and predictably wrong. Sharp and intense austerity played a great part in reducing GDP by 25 per cent and creating mass unemployment.

Imposing less austerity on Greece, producing a more modest decline in Greek output, would have required additional loans from European governments. If this had been available in addition to the existing package, it would have saddled Greece with a debt it surely could not have repaid, and may have been unacceptable to European voters. This is why the partial bailout of Greece’s original creditors was such an error. If it had not been done, and some of that money had been used to allow less austerity to be imposed on the Greek people, we would not be at the present impasse.

Over the past year the Greek government has managed to achieve approximate primary budget balance: its taxes cover all its spending, excluding interest payments. It is no longer asking for more money to cover spending, but simply additional loans to pay back interest and maturing loans. In short, it needs money from the Troika to repay the Troika. As the price of these loans, the Troika is demanding yet more austerity. The Syriza government wants to avoid this to give the economy a chance to recover.

From a macroeconomic viewpoint, this is reasonable, because it would probably be in the long-term interests of the Troika. The OECD estimates that Greece has unused resources worth at least 10 per cent of GDP. A pause in austerity would allow demand to increase, reducing unemployment and generating more taxes. The Greek government could use some of the additional revenue to start repaying its loans.

So why does the Troika insist on continuing with austerity? The Troika contains many different views and interests. Some may still not believe, despite all the evidence, that austerity hurts growth. Perhaps others are happy to see a left-wing government fail, because it does not accept the received wisdom from Brussels and Frankfurt on what good economic policy involves.

Another explanation is that eurozone governments have become victims of their media’s rhetoric. The impression the media conveys is that all of the Troika’s loans have gone to cover Greek government spending. In fact, most went to bail out Greece’s previous creditors and any further loans will just repay existing loans. But to people in the eurozone it seems as if the Troika is transferring more of their money to Greek citizens. In these circumstances, the politicians need to appear to be tough on Greece. They fear that to change policy now would lead their electorates to ask why previous policies have failed, which would expose the Troika’s big mistake.

The Greek people have already paid highly for their own governments’ mistakes before 2010. Now it seems they must suffer as a result of the Troika’s errors. That the governments of the eurozone continue to display a macroeconomic understanding of fiscal policy equivalent to that of Angela Merkel’s imagined Swabian housewife is perhaps not surprising – it has been a consistent pattern since the eurozone began. More surprising is the behaviour of the IMF, established to represent the international community and full of hundreds of economists. That it had the means to stop this happening but chose not to do so is equally tragic.

Simon Wren-Lewis is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economics at the University of Oxford, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe

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Commons Confidential: Sleepy Zac is too laid-back

Lucy Allan's "threat", Clean for the Queen and the case of the invisible frontbencher.

After six years as a minister for Europe, David Lidington’s profile remains low. But the invisible frontbencher might be useful in a pub quiz, if not a referendum. A Tory snout muttered that David Who? has been boasting that he can name 20 of the 28 European commissioners currently parked in Brussels.

Lidington admitted that he will be history, should the UK decide to quit the EU. “If Britain voted to leave,” he nervously told a Tory gathering, “I think I’d let somebody else have a go in this job.” David Cameron is presumably thinking the same thing. Incidentally, can anybody name Britain’s EU commissioner?

“I wanted to get in touch to let you know about a fantastic initiative to help clean up the UK in advance of HM the Queen’s 90th birthday,” trilled the Banbury Tory Victoria Prentis in an email to fellow MPs. “‘Clean for the Queen’ brings together all the anti-litter organisations from the UK and aims to get people involved in the largest community-inspired action against litter . . . I will also be holding a drop-in photo opportunity . . . We will have posters, litter bags and T-shirts. Please do come along.” I await the formation of a breakaway group: “Republicans for Rubbish”.

Tory colleagues are advising Zac Goldsmith, I hear, to invest a slice of his inherited £300m fortune in speaking lessons to help him stop sounding so disinterested. Laid-Back Zac appears to lull himself to sleep on public platforms and on TV. My informant whispered that cheeky Tory MPs have been cooking up a slogan – “Goldsmith: head and shoulders above Labour” – ahead of the tall, rich kid’s tussle with the pocket battleship Sadiq Khan to become the mayor of London.

The Telford Tory Lucy Allan has finally received help after inserting the words “Unless you die” into a constituent’s email that she posted on Facebook, presumably to present herself as the victim of a non-existent death threat. Allan has since become embroiled in accusations of bullying a sick staffer. “The House has offered me a three-hour media training session,” the fantasist said in an email to colleagues. “There are two extra slots available . . .” How much will this cost us?

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when the Injustice Secretary, Michael Gove, shared a drink with Chris Grayling and informed his predecessor that prisons would be the next piece of his legacy to be reversed. Chris “the Jackal” Grayling, by the way, is complaining that Gove’s spads are rubbishing him. And with good reason.

The Tory lobbyist Baron Hill of Oareford is the UK’s chap at the European Commission. He puts the margin into marginalised at the Berlaymont.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle