Can Greece be saved?

Can Greece be saved?

Katinka Barysch
20 January 2011

by Katinka Barysch

Will Greece have to restructure its debt? Among most West European economists and investors, this now seems to be a foregone conclusion. The Greeks themselves are not so sure. During a recent visit to Athens, none of the economists and politicians I spoke to thought that restructuring was inevitable or desirable. The Papandreou government looks determined. But to avoid default, Greece would need two things: economic growth and more help from its European neighbours.

Since Greece negotiated its €110 billion financial assistance package with the EU and the IMF last year, it has cut its government deficit by an impressive 6 per cent of GDP. The government has slashed public salaries and pensions, raised VAT and other taxes, and clamped down on ubiquitous tax evasion. Half a dozen big strikes and the occasional outbreak of street fighting notwithstanding, the Greeks have so far remained rather stoic in the face of this unprecedented belt tightening. Most realise that change is needed and hardship inevitable.

The other reason why Greeks have so far stayed calm is that the worst is yet to come. While civil servants, truckers and some other groups felt immediate pain, the population at large has not yet suffered unbearably. After 15 years of rising salaries, most Greeks can cope with an initial drop in income. Those who lose their job or business can usually rely on a tightly knit family network for support.

Greece, however, is not even half way through its deficit cutting programme. The total need for adjustment is 13-15 per cent of GDP. Cutting the first 20 or 30 per cent out of any budget is relatively easy – especially in a budget that contains as much flab as the Greek one. The public sector is overstaffed and, in many places, overpaid; pension entitlements are generous; although 60 per cent of the population lives in the capital, Greece has over 1,000 municipal administrations and 52 regional ones (a new law will cut those numbers by two-thirds); the country’s 150 public hospitals are accounting-free zones, which has contributed to spiralling healthcare costs; public enterprise such as the railways are black holes for government subsidies.

Once the most glaring inefficiencies have been removed, however, further reductions will get a lot harder. After the fat is gone, the government will have to cut bone. Papandreou needs to perform this operation at a time when the economy is in deep recession: by the end of this year, GDP will have contracted by as much as 10 per cent; unemployment is heading towards 15 per cent; among younger people, one in three is out of work; thousands of businesses are closing down every month.

Even if the government managed to stay on track with its plans for budget consolidation, public debt would continue to rise inexorably, to over 150 per cent of GDP by the end of this year. Greece will only stand a chance of generating the revenue needed to service such high debt if it returns to economic growth, and quickly.

The bad news is that in order to regain its competitiveness Greece will require an internal ‘devaluation’ – a fall in real wages relative to its trading partners. Such wage compression will dampen consumption and could even lead to damaging deflation. And it would not even address the deeper problem that Greece makes few things that people in other countries want to buy. Growth since the 1990s was led by consumption and fuelled by cheap foreign credit. To move to a more sustainable growth model, the country requires higher value-added industries and massive foreign investment. Neither will materialise without very thorough economic and institutional reforms. “In terms of institutions, infrastructure and corruption, Greece looks a bit like a third world country”, sighs one Greek fund manager based in London.

The somewhat better news is that Greece’s economy is so inefficient that a series of straightforward changes could kick-start an economic expansion. “In many sectors, our economy resembles Soviet central planning”, explains Yannis Stournaras, who runs the IOBE institute for economic and industrial research. “If we remove stifling regulation and bureaucracy, the economy’s dynamism will be unbound.” IOBE has calculated that liberalisation of the most heavily shackled sectors and professions would lift output by 10 per cent over four years, and probably more once dynamic, growth-boosting effects are taken into account.

Having implemented a first bout of budget-cutting policies, the Papandreou government is now setting to work on structural reforms. If things go according to plan, some 70 ‘closed shop’ professions, from lawyers to pharmacists and civil engineers, will lose many of their privileges and protections. Hiring and firing workers will get easier across the board. State enterprises will be restructured, downsized and sold off. Red tape for businesses will be cut. New incentives will boost investment in green energy, high-end tourism and other potential growth industries.

These plans are already creating fierce opposition from the highly organised groups that will be directly affected. The two main political parties, but Pasok in particular, rely on the trade unions and professional bodies for their core support. “Attacking the closed-shop professions means civil war within Pasok”, predicts Loukas Tsoukalis, head of Eliamep, a think-tank in Athens. Already, some Pasok MPs are grumbling that the reforms are now going too far, too fast. More strikes are inevitable.

Curiously, Greeks tend to sympathise with the plight of even the most molly-coddled public sector workers and privileged professionals. Faced with rising opposition within his own party and public restiveness, Papandreou’s resolve may yet falter.

Even if it does not, Papandreou will face the immovable object of his own state administration. Structural reforms will only boost growth if they are implemented swiftly and effectively. The chances of this happening are slim. A law going back to the post-dictatorship days makes the dismissal of civil servants illegal; even sacking public sector workers who do not strictly speaking enjoy civil service status is considered politically impossible. Each administration since the 1980s has added ‘its’ people to an already outsized state apparatus, often in return for votes and political support. The result is a public sector that is not only hopelessly bloated (roughly 800,000 out of a workforce of five million) but one that is infused with a sense of entitlement, rather than public duty.

Until and unless growth resumes, Greece will struggle to cope with its stifling debt burden. Greeks hope that the EU will step in again to tide the country over until the economy recovers. Many hope that Germany will drop its opposition to joint eurozone bonds, which would help to lower the interest rate at which Greece borrows and refinances its debt. Others suggest that the EU could ‘front-load’ regional aid to boost Greek investment over the next couple of years.

If no further EU help is forthcoming, or the debt burden proves unsustainable, Greece may yet be forced to negotiate a rescheduling or restructuring with its creditors. Since Greek politicians are loath to consider the default option publicly, this would come as a shock to many ordinary Greeks. Many might be directly affected if (as seems likely) a public debt restructuring triggers a crisis within the Greek banking sector and social security funds. Most Greeks would consider default as a terminal blow to the country’s standing inside the EU.

Greeks have traditionally been very pro-EU, and not only because the country has been one of the biggest recipients of EU structural funds since the 1980s. All political parties, with the exception of the Communists, are in favour of more European integration. Remarkably few Greeks have so far blamed the EU (or the IMF for that matter) for the hardship they are going through – although Germans, and Chancellor Merkel in particular, are deeply unpopular for dithering over the bail-out and lecturing the Greeks about their allegedly lazy and lavish ways.

If Greece was forced to restructure, politicians and public opinion could quickly turn against the EU. “The Greeks would say: We’ve been through pain and austerity, and now you drop us”, predicts Panagiotis Ioakeimidis, professor at Athens university and an EU specialist. Some Greeks fear that after default, Greece’s membership in the euro, and the EU itself, may be questioned. That is why the Greeks will hold out fiercely against any pressure to consider restructuring.

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform