Sunday, 6 November 2011

Shame on you if you fool me once...

…but shame on me if you fool me twice. Sometimes sayings that refer to ordinary life apply to politics and economy as well.

Have you ever wondered how many times have Greeks double-crossed their breadwinners from the EU? Greece joined the European Economic Community in 1981. I have to plead I know little about the backstage of entrance to European Communities at that time, but from what I remember at that time a country which applied for a membership did not have to meet any quantitative criteria. From that point being a member of EEC has helped Greece make a big stride, yet not in terms of development, but in terms of standard of living.

Things have changed after the Maastricht Treaty was signed and took effect. It laid foundation for single currency area and set requirements a country which wanted to join it had to meet. Two of them referred to soundness of public finances – each applicant had to keep general government deficit below 3% of GDP and the whole public debt could not account for more than 60% of GDP. These are figures, and whenever statistics are in use, room for tampering can be found. Here’s the rub – when calculating the public debt a country was allowed to legally subtract some of its liabilities. The main method of concealing some of debts was using complex financial instruments, mainly cross-currency swaps that allowed the Greek government to issue bonds in other currencies at “arranged rates” and with deferred maturity. The operation that helped Greeks dupe the EU was brought off in liaison with Goldman Sachs (the bank that rules the world, there is more than just a grain of truth in this assertion). Thus in official statistics the debt was curbed, in fact it morphed into time bomb that would blow up Greece’s public finances in a few years.

For many years Greek sovereign bonds were treated as safe investment. When banking crisis in 2008 reached its zenith, many banks in Europe, including Dexia lost millions on toxic US mortgage-market-related assets, but then received capital injections. This money was parked in safe havens. One of them were Greek bonds. Collapse of Greece’s public finances came to the light in September 2009. From then on, Greece has faced insolvency many times. For the first time it received a bailout package in May 2010. Over 100 billion Euros let the country avoid bankruptcy then, but this was just the first injection of never-ending drip of money. To borrow money on preferential terms from the EU and the IMF, Greece had to implement painful austerity measures. Greeks, pampered by overgrown welfare system, went to the streets to protest against dreadful retrenchment programme. The country repeatedly came to a standstill, strikes exacerbated economic contraction and debt-to-GDP ratio soared.

In most European countries the crisis was sparked by excessive expansion of deregulated banking industry, mainly consisting in reckless mortgage lending. In Greece banking sector stayed relatively healthy. The overgrown welfare state and lack of competitiveness of Greek economy were the nails used to close the coffin of Greece. Many privileges, despite social unrest, can be scrapped, but structural changes are will not be easily brought in, given the mentality of Greek society. Big grey economy and widespread claimant stance (postawa roszczeniowa) will be a stumble block. Greece must not only cut ridiculous expenses, but also take steps to boost its tax revenue base. Tax evasion must finally be severely punished, wages must finally be linked to efficiency. It sounds simply, but Greece has to get to grips with bigger challenges. In needs to carry out structural reforms to make its products and services sellable on global markets. It would be easier if they could be sold at lower prices, but as long as Greece is a member of the Eurozone, devaluation of currency does not come into play.

Solidarity is a glue that stick together the European Union. Poland is also a big beneficiary of this. As a poorer country we receive lots of money to modernise the country. A big leap being made in infrastructure development can be put down the inflow of EU funds, but life is not only about taking, but also about giving. One country should not sponge on other, as Greece has done. And if other countries bail one country out, it should not come up with ideas such as the one to call a referendum whether to accept another tranche of bailout package, subject to another dose of painful reforms.

Someone finally should bite the bullet and pull the plug on Greece. I would simply let it go bust, let banks write down or write off value of Greek bonds (most creditors of Greece are capable to absorb such losses, although it would be a blow to their shareholders). I would even let it start from scratch. But even in such scenario, I seriously doubt if Greeks would learn from their mistakes. They would rather be taught that if creditors let them get away with not meeting their obligations, that they can carry on living off other countries’ backs.

The Euro, as a currency, as well as the Eurozone, are political, not economic undertakings and for that reason no one will have the courage to kick out Greece from the eurozone. Admitting one’s defeat is a bitter pill to swallow, but in my view, this painful solution would in long-term turn out to be best, and less costly than pumping next billions into a bankrupt country.

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