Tag Archives: Alexis Tsipras

Greedy Greeks?

The shock referendum announcement by Alexis Tsipras over the Troika’s austerity demands has radically increased the chance that Greece will fall out of the eurozone.

I am surprised that the markets, and indeed the Greek people themselves, did not give more credence to this outcome over the last few weeks. The received wisdom of most market pundits is that an 11th hour agreement would be reached.

Meanwhile, Greeks have been pulling money out their banks, but at a very leisurely pace. To me, this nonchalance appears bizarre. The chart below shows Greek bank private-sector deposits falling from 160 billion euro prior to Syriza’s election victory to around 130 billion euro at end May. The chart is made to look more spectacular by having the y-axis commence at 100 billion euro.

Even if last week you had only assigned a 5% probability to a return to the drachma, such an outcome would result in a 30-50% decline in the value of your savings when denominated in euro. Risk equals probability times effect. The probability might have been assessed—wrongly as it turns out—as small, but the impact should have been deemed as large. The prudent man or woman would have parked their money abroad until a deal was sealed and then repatriated the money once confidence was restored. And for small accounts that couldn’t justify the hassle and fees of an inter-country transfer, you could always stash cash under the bed. Yet relatively few have followed such a simple risk control strategy (Chart from Bloomberg here).

Greek Bank Private Sector Deposits jpeg

At this point, it appears improbable that the banks will open on Monday, and the Greek authorities will have to introduce capital controls and bank deposit withdrawal limits. If this is indeed the case, the likelihood of avoiding a return to the drachma looks remote.

Very soon the blame game will begin. However, from my perspective there is a certain inevitability about the outcome, which rests on long-term economic and political factors that are rarely raised by most commentators. After a political tour to Greece two years ago, I blogged about these issues here, here and here.

Front and centre of the factors driving Greece toward its current predicament is the country’s terrible demographics. Let’s look at its current and projected old-age dependency rate, which I took from Eurostat. Currently, the ratio of the elderly (65+) to working age (15-64) is 1:3. However, this ratio is rapidly moving toward 1:2 (click for larger image).

Greek Dependency Ratio Comparative jpeg

Not surprisingly, such demographics are putting a huge burden on the state with respect to pensions. Even the right-of-centre Wall Street Journal goes beyond the stereotype of greedy Greeks in recognising this fact (source: here). So while the aggregate Greek pension burden is very high in a European context when compared with GDP, it is not so high when we put pension spending on a per person basis.

Greek Pensions % of GDP jpeg

Greek Pension Spending per 65+ jpeg

With demographics like this, the only way a country can maintain living standards is through securing high productivity growth. And to do that, in a global economy, a country needs a comparative advantage in industries that exhibit high productivity growth.

Unfortunately, since entering the euro at what proved to be the wrong rate, Greek growth has been concentrated on just a few industries such as tourism, real estate, shipping services and infrastructure projects benefitting from EU regional development funding. Many of these industries got savaged in the wake of 2008/09 financial crisis, and those that have remained reasonably robust, such as tourism, are not great engines of productivity growth.

As Japan amply demonstrates, when a country enters a steep demographic transition, it is very difficult to secure high rates of economic growth. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t maintain full employment, social  cohesion and well-being. Japan has partially done this through accepting declines in real wages and a depreciation of its currency. Indeed, the Japanese middle class tourist, once king of Bloomingdales and Harrods in the 1980s, is now relegated to factory outlets.

For the IMF, Greece has been pushed toward reformimg its soft infrastructure: land registry, tax collection, business licensing system, closed shops and so on and so forth. These are all noble causes—and in the course of time should bring some productivity improvements. But the IMF‘s second critical goal, internal devaluation, has proved a disaster. Adjusting wages and prices downwards without producing an economic slump is an almost impossible task. Moreover, the key demographic segment that is critical to future productivity gains—highly educated young adults—have reacted to austerity by flocking to the UK and Germany in droves. The Guardian reported on this depressing brain-drain in January this year (here)

If you are struggling with adverse demographics and poor competitiveness, the last thing a country needs is for its actual economic output to be substantially below its potential output. But this is what you get if you implement a vicious policy of austerity within the context of a lack of effective demand and a fixed exchange rate. Far better is to adjust prices through maintaining a flexible exchange rate and allowing a modicum of inflation. And the only way for this to occur is for Greece to leave the euro and return to a freely floating drachma.


Chart of the Day, 31 Jan 2015: Happy Danes, Sad Greeks

The Atlantic has just published a fabulous article entitled “The Danish Don’t Have the Secret to Happiness“.  It is a response to a myriad of charts that look like this (taken from a tongue in cheek article in the British Medical Journal that The Atlantic references):

Life Satisfaction jpeg

Michael Booth, the author of the Atlantic article, is a Danish happiness cynic, questioning the happy state of Denmark on three fronts. He posits that

1. Danish happiness is a false construct arising from low expectations,

2. the boring nature of Danes allows them to remain happy, and

3. their smugness will ultimately lead to the nation’s final demise.

The low expectations argument is a restatement of what the happiness economist Caroline Graham calls the ‘happy peasants and miserable millionaires’ paradox (see, for example, here). According to her, our happiness set point can be a function of our surroundings.

While the research confirms the stable patterns in the determinants of happiness worldwide, it also shows that there is a remarkable human capacity to adapt to both prosperity and adversity. Thus, people in Afghanistan are as happy as Latin Americans – above the world average – and Kenyans are as satisfied with their healthcare as Americans. Crime makes people unhappy, but it matters less to happiness when there is more of it; the same goes for both corruption and obesity. Freedom and democracy make people happy, but they matter less when these goods are less common. The bottom line is that people can adapt to tremendous adversity and retain their natural cheerfulness, while they can also have virtually everything – including good health – and be miserable.

Indeed, an individual’s happiness set point can not only be a function of relative health, wealth, beauty and so on relative to one’s peers but also the same yardsticks measured against one’s past life. So how about the Greeks? Are they adapting to their new straightened circumstances? According to OECD data, the answer must be “no” or at least “not yet”. From the “How’s Life in Greece, May 2014” survey, life satisfaction comes in at around 4.7 out of 10, which puts Greece at the bottom of the OECD (here).

Further, while life satisfaction can be dubbed a function of the remembering self (when I sit down in a chair and think of my life, am I satisfied), people’s happiness as also related to their experiencing self (using the Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s terminology– see my post here). In short, am I cold, hungry, stressed, anxious , sad and/or in pain; or am I warm, replete, joyful, relaxed, rested and/or content? The OECD reports that only 52% of Greeks report having more positive than negative experiences in an average day (the lowest in the OECD) compared with an average of 76%.

For Greece to live with long-term austerity, Angela Merkel and the Troika must believe that Greek happiness indicators must, in the course of time, reset upwards. Unfortunately, they haven’t been reading the happiness literature in sufficient depth. While life satisfaction can adapt, adaption is generally a reaction to a set of circumstances that you have grown up with. Such forms of satisfaction lack what Graham calls “agency” or “the capacity to pursue a fulfilling and purposeful life”.  And once you have tasted “agency” you don’t want to lose it.

The appeal of Syriza, and its slogan of “hope”, is its potential to restore a degree of agency to the Greek people. Whether they can deliver this agency is a different question. In reality, income and wealth bestow a high degree of agency since they give us the financial wherewithal to make choices. However, agency can still arise from non-financial means, such as having the ability to adopt a non-conventional lifestyle, move from one area to another, change career, better one’s education and gain access to art and culture.  To stop disillusionment setting in, Syriza will have to put much effort into the fostering of such sources of low cost agency.

Happiness can be viewed from other vantage points too. Many scholars of happiness have identified eudaimonia as a source of happiness. This is sometimes described as human flourishing, but I prefer to view it as the sense of participating in and contributing to something greater than one’s own life. Past political movements have tapped into eudaimonia to give their followers a sense of shared propose and even destiny–sometimes, of course, to disastrous effect. However, at its best, it can be a fuel for transformational social movements that enthuse and enrich those advancing the cause as much as the final beneficiaries. Alexis Tsipras has certainly given Greeks a vision of change that could stimulate eudaimonia, but whether this can morph into a philosophy or ideal that has some staying power beyond the post-election honeymoon is a different question.

Meanwhile, for Danes seeking eudaimonia, a temporary move to Greece would not be a bad idea. But remember that the Danes always have the option of returning to Denmark and restocking on more mundane sources of happiness. The Greeks don’t.

Chart of the Day, 26 Jan 2015: End of Greek Austerity?

So can Greece’s Syriza Party end austerity?  At least it starts with government finances in pretty good shape (Source: European Economic Forecast, Autumn 2014; click for larger image).

Greek Government Expenditures jpeg

Already, the Greek budget is showing a positive primary balance; that is, expenditures before interest payments are less than revenue. So if the government didn’t pay interest to its debtors, it could spend more on welfare. But we are not talking about a lot of money here: a few billion euro at most. Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s leader, likes to point out that Greece still has an awful lot of debt even after the restructuring by the Troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF), but the debt that it has is very, very cheap.

Nonetheless, according to the EU forecast, Greece is poised to show an overall budget surplus even after interest payments in 2015. The purpose of this surplus is supposed to be to pay down the debt mountain. But if the Greek government won’t do that, then they would have even more to spend. So far so good. But actually what we obtain from these measures alone is still a government running along very Germanic lines; in short, only spending what it earns. Hardly a revolution.

Let’s look at a breakdown of general government operations in more detail (from the IMF’s Fifth Review of its funding facility; click for larger image)

Greek General Govt Operations jpeg

The pictures of poverty on Greek streets comes about through a combination of 25% unemployment and a safety net shrunken by the fall in social benefits from €47.2 billion in 2011 to ¢38.1 billion in 2014. If you ran the primary balance at zero in 2015 and growth stayed on the same course as the IMF projection, then Syriza may be able to restore a little over half of the social benefit cuts. Then each year after that (still assuming GDP growth holds up) you could claw back some more.

This, however, would do little to jump start the economy. To do that in a Franklin D. Roosevelt New Deal kind of way you would need to see a massive jump in public works spending (the lines in the chart above showing investment and compensation of employees ). But on the assumption that Syriza has defaulted on its debts, it will, at least for a time, be shut out of the capital markets, so it will be in no position to borrow to spend.

A good Keynesian like Paul Krugman would argue that 25% unemployment is incontrovertible proof of a massive gap between potential and actual economic output. In such a situation, the government should let the central bank buy its debt (through printing money), so allowing public spending to let rip. The risk that this raises inflation when you have massive underutilized resources is close to zero. But Syriza can’t do that since it doesn’t have a central bank to call its own; Syriza’s central bank, the European Central Bank, resides in Frankfurt, not in Athens. In short, it can’t print and spend.

How about redistribution? Are the Greek oligarchs quaking in their boots? Again the euro  restricts the government’s options. With no exchange controls and a common currency, the rich have maximum flexibility to flee as and when they wish.

Perhaps, this is why financial markets have reacted to the Syriza victory with such equanimity. For them, Tsipras may possibly be the Red Emperor with no clothes. Unless, of course, he drops the big one: a euro exit. Now that is what I would call a revolution.