The headlines are once again dominated by the living Greek economic tragedy, vacillating between dire predictions of a Greek collapse and ensuing global financial calamity to ebullient, (and frankly rather ludicrous) stock market jumps of joy on hopes of a pseudo happily-ever-after. Conventional wisdom has been to lambast the Greeks with the usual damning triumvirate of a nation whose citizens are either lazy, stupid or evil… or all three. The nation is currently in a technical default, having failed to make payments already due on loans to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but has claimed that it will make a single lump sum payment later in the month for all monies due in June. The size of the Greek debt relative to GDP is second only to Japan, which given its ability to control its own currency is a very different animal.
To put the level of Greek debt in context, at a total of $352.7 billion, it is about half of the $700 billion that was approved by Congress for the Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008. So in the context of global debt, it isn’t that big of a deal, what is a big deal however is the precedent the situation will set for the Eurozone, the second largest economy in the world. I can’t imagine just how much coffee and antacids have been consumed this week in Luxembourg, as all sides find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, with no clear common ground.
As for that excruciating austerity we keep hearing about, meaning the cuts governments were wailing about having been forced to endure. Errrr, hmmmmm, not so sure where that is coming from when we look at data from the IMF on the next chart….
Spending cuts? Where? All three countries have increased their debt to GDP ratios since the crisis began. So here’s the real scoop.
Greece has a massive government full of rules and regulations on darn near everything that makes it very difficult to start or run a business and a tax code that makes War and Peace look like a summer beach read. Now all these rules, regulations and taxes were put in place for ostensibly good reasons, like most bureaucratic shenanigans, “We need to protect hotel employees, cab drivers, restaurants, nurses, fishing boats, gardeners etc. etc. etc.” The problem is that when you add up all this “protection” for existing businesses, employees, consumers, tradespeople… it becomes increasingly tough to run a business.
To make up for just how tough it is, the government has made it a practice to promise people lots of safety in the form of pension systems, welfare aid, etc. The math here isn’t too tough to figure out. If on the one hand you make it really hard on people to get things done and on the other hand you provide ample support for a decent living for those who aren’t working for whatever reason, well you’ll have less people working their tails off, which means less money available to tax and spread around to those who aren’t working. But that’s ok, because hey, we are part of the Eurozone and can get debt cheap, so we’ll just borrow whatever we can’t get through taxation and spend that. No worries.
That worked for a while… until the market started looking at the math a bit more in depth and realized that Greece had reached the point where it really cannot sustain its debt any longer.
Greece is like the family with a single income earner holding down two jobs that pay slightly over minimum wage who needs to support a spouse, some kids, manage a $525,000 adjustable rate mortgage whose rate keeps rising, has two cars in the driveway in desperate need of rather costly repairs, a cousin who just moved in and has some serious health problems and found out today that the roof has a major leak. Now the bank keeps calling and telling you that you need to work harder and cut back on the spouse’s spending habit as your mortgage rate continues to rise and you are already late on a few months’ worth of payments and your credit cards are maxed out. Your boss is telling you that your skills are seriously lacking and your cousin says she can’t possibly live in that room you gave her unless she gets to redecorate it on your dime. At some point, you throw your hands up in the air and tell everyone to shove it!
Earlier this week, according to a report by the Financial Times, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras argued that,
“The pensions of the elderly are often the last refuge for entire families that have only one or no member working in a country with 25 per cent unemployment in the general population, and 50 per cent among young people.” That’s Greek for shove it.
How does a politician manage this type of pressure from back home? Ms. Merkel and Mario Draghi just aren’t that scary or persuasive!
So that’s where we are. The majority of Greeks have decided to go the “shove it” route and sent Yanis Varoufakis to deliver the message, in a rather debonair manner we might add, (that’s Yanis on the left in the picture below.) This has left Germany’s Angela Merkel, the European Central Bank’s Mario Draghi and France’s François Hollande in a tizzy as they try to figure out how to work with a Greek envoy that appears to be quite confident their game theory skills will eventually get them whatever they want. Italy’s Renzi, by the way, is mostly back home dealing with his nation’s struggling economy and the seemingly eternal roll of sitting between the U.S. and Russia – poor man has enough on his plate!
So here we stand with Greece still wanting to be part of the Eurozone club, having never, even upon admission to the club, been able to satisfy the requirements for membership. To be fair, many nations who were let into the Eurozone club never have been able to meet them either.
Bottom Line: What does a Grexit mean for the rest of the world? First, it likely means a stronger dollar relative to the euro, at least in the near-term, as there will be a flurry of uncertainty given that (1) the Maastricht Treaty didn’t provide any way for a nation to exit the Eurozone and (2) there will be fears that other member nations may try to find wiggle room around their heavy sovereign debt loads, which will give some cause for concern about the future of the Eurozone. Eventually, all that flurry will likely pass as frankly a Eurozone without Greece is stronger than one with it. Holders of Greek debt will be hit hard, which means a lot of European banks, (primary holders of all that debt) are getting even more complicated. However, the Eurozone economy is still struggling, thus the ECB will continue on with its euro-style quantitative easing, which means that over the longer run, the U.S. dollar is likely to continue it bull run.