Greece and the Euro: A Time of Excessive and Unproductive Debt and of Financial Implosion

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
– Albert Einstein (1879-1955), German-born theoretical physicist and professor, Nobel Prize 1921

It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.
– Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), 3rd President of the United States (1801-09)

Having seen the people of all other nations bowed down to the earth under the wars and prodigalities of their rulers, I have cherished their opposites, peace, economy, and riddance of public debt, believing that these were the high road to public as well as private prosperity and happiness.
– Thomas Jefferson

On the 4th of July, the credit agency Standard & Poor’s called the country of Greece what it is, i.e. a country in de facto financial bankruptcy. No slight of hand, no obfuscation, no debt reorganization and no “innovative” bailouts can hide the fact that the defective rules of the 17-member Eurozone have allowed some of its members to succumb to the siren calls of excessive and unproductive indebtedness, to be followed by a default on debt payments accompanied by crushingly higher borrowing costs.

Greece (11 million inhabitants), in fact, has abused the credibility that came with its membership in the Eurozone. In 2004, for instance, the Greek Government embarked upon a massive spending spree to host the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, which cost 7 billion euros ($12.08 billion). Then, from 2005 to 2008, the same government decided to go on a spending spree, this time purchasing all types of armaments that it hardly needed from foreign suppliers. Piling up a gross foreign debt to the tune of $533 billion (2010) seemed the easy way out. But sooner or later, the piper has to be paid and the debt burden cannot be hidden anymore.

Greece’s current financial predicaments (and those of other European countries such as Spain, Portugal, Ireland and even Italy) are not dissimilar to the ones Argentina had to go through some ten years ago. In each case, an unhealthy membership in a monetary union of some sort led to excessive foreign indebtedness, followed by a capital flight and a crushing and ruinous debt deflation.

In the case of Argentina, the country had decided to adopt the U.S. dollar as its currency, even though productivity levels in Argentina were one-third those in the United States. An artificially pegged exchange rate of one peso=one U.S. dollar held for close to ten years, before the inevitable collapse.

Indeed, membership in a monetary union and the adoption of a common currency for a group of countries can be a powerful instrument to stimulate economic and productivity growth, with low inflation, when such monetary unions are well designed structurally, but they can also turn into an economic nightmare when they are not.

Unfortunately for many poorer European members of the euro monetary union, the rules for a viable monetary union were not followed, and its unraveling in the coming years, although deplorable, should be of no great surprise to anyone knowledgeable in international finance.

What are these rules for a viable and stable monetary union with a common currency?

1- First and foremost, member countries should have economic structures and labor productivity levels that are comparable, in order for the common currency not to appear persistently overvalued or persistently undervalued depending on any particular member economy. An alternative is to have a high degree of labor mobility between regional economies so that unemployment levels do not remain unduly high in the least competitive regions.

2- Secondly, if either one of the two above conditions is not met (as is usually the case, since real life monetary unions are rarely “Optimum Currency Areas”), the monetary union must be headed by a strong political entity, possibly a federal system of government, that is capable of smoothly transferring fiscal funds from surplus economies to deficit economies through some form of centrally managed fiscal equalization payments.

This is to avoid the political strains and uncertainty when the standards of living rise in surplus regional economies and drop in regional deficit economies. Indeed, since the regional exchange rates cannot be adjusted upward or downward to redress each member country’s balance of payments, and since the law of one price applies all over the monetary zone, this leaves fluctuations in income levels and employment levels as the main mechanism of adjustment to external imbalances. This can turn out to be a harsh remedy.

Indeed, such a system of income or quantity adjustment rather than price adjustment is somewhat reminiscent of the way the 19th century gold standard used to work, albeit with a deflationary bias, except that it was expected to have price and income inflation in surplus countries and price and income deflation in deficit countries, caused by money supply expansions in surplus economies and money supply contractions in deficit economies. In a more or less formal monetary union, we are left with income inflation and deflation while the central bank holds the rein on the overall price level.

3- A third condition for a smoothly functioning monetary union is to have free movements of financial and banking capital within the zone. This is to insure that interest rates are coherent within the monetary zone, adjusted for a risk factor, and that productive projects have access to finance wherever they take place.

In the U.S., for instance, the highly liquid federal funds market allows banks in temporary deficit in check clearing to borrow short-term funds from banks in a temporary surplus position. In Canada, large national banks have branches in all provinces and can easily transfer funds from surplus branches to deficit branches without affecting their credit or lending operations.

4- A fourth condition is to have a common central bank that can take account not only of inflation levels but also of real economic growth and employment levels in its monetary policy decisions. Such a central bank should be able to act as lender of last resort, not only to banks, but also to the governments of the zone.

Unfortunately for the Eurozone, it currently fails to meet some of the most fundamental conditions for a smoothly functioning monetary union.

Let’s look at them one by one.

* First, labor productivity levels (production per hour worked) vary substantially between the member states. For example, in 2009, if the index of productivity level in Germany was 100, it was only 64.4 in Greece, nearly one third lower. In Portugal and Estonia, for instance, it was even lower at 58 and 47 respectively. What this means is that the euro, as a common currency, may appear undervalued for Germany but overvalued for many other members of the Eurozone, stimulating net exports in the first case but hurting badly the competitiveness of other member countries.

* Second, and possibly an even more important requirement, the Eurozone lacks the backing of a strong and stable political and fiscal union. This leaves fiscal transfers between member states to be left to ad hoc political decisions, and this creates uncertainty. In fact, there are no permanent mechanisms of equalization payments between strong and weak economies within the Eurozone. For this reason, we can say that there is no permanent economic solidarity within the Eurozone.

* Third, the designers of the Eurozone elected to limit the European Central Bank to a narrowly defined monetary role, its central obligation being to maintain price stability, while denying it any direct responsibility in stabilizing the overall macroeconomy of the zone and preventing it from lending directly to governments through money creation, if needs be. For this reason, we can say that there is no statutory financial solidarity within the Eurozone.

* Finally, even though capital and labor mobility within the Eurozone is fairly high, historically speaking, it is far less secured, for instance, than it is the case with the American monetary union.

In retrospect, it seems that the creation of the Eurozone in 1999 was more a political gamble than a well-thought-out economic and monetary project. This is most unfortunate, because once the most estranged members of the zone begin defaulting on their debts and possibly revert to their own national currencies, the financial shock will have real economic consequences, not only in Europe, but around the world.

Many economists think that the best option for Greece and the rest of the EU should be to engineer an “orderly default” on Greece’s public debt which would allow Athens to withdraw simultaneously from the Eurozone and to reintroduce its national currency, the drachma, at a debased rate. This would avoid a prolonged economic depression in Greece.

Refusing to accept the obvious, i.e. an orderly default, would please Greece’s banking creditors but will badly hurt its economy, its workers and its citizens. That’s what bankruptcy laws are for, i.e. to liberate debtors from impossible-to-repay debts.

Of course, the most debt-ridden nation on earth is not Greece, but the United States. Let me say this as a conclusion: If American politicians do not stop playing political games with the economy, a lot of Americans are going to suffer in the coming months and years, and this will spill over to other countries.

With Europe and the United States both in an economic turmoil, this is very bad news for the world economy.

Rodrigue Tremblay is professor emeritus of economics at the University of Montreal and author of the book The New American Empire. He can be reached at: rodrigue.tremblay@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Rodrigue, or visit Rodrigue's website.