By Jérôme Creel
The ongoing Greek saga is looking more and more like an old American TV series. JR Ewing returns to the family table feeling upset with Sue Ellen for her failure to keep her promise to stop drinking. Given the way things are going, a divorce seems inevitable, especially if Bobby sides with his brother and refuses to help his sister-in-law any longer.
Just like in Dallas, addiction to a potentially toxic substance, public debt, is plaguing Europe’s states and institutions. Analyses on Greece focus mainly on debt-to-GDP ratios. On these terms, Greece’s public debt-to-GDP ratio rose from 2011 to 2014: European public opinion can therefore legitimately question the ability of the Greek people (really the Greek state) to curb spending and raise taxes. A divorce is inevitable. But if we look at the amounts involved, the situation seems somewhat different.
Between 2011 and 2014, Greece’s public debt decreased by 39 billion euros according to Eurostat. Seen in this light, the Greek state is making a real effort. But this obscures the aid of the creditors. The Greek state has in fact benefited from the restructuring of its debt, including a partial but important default on its public debt to its private creditors. According to Jeromin Zettelmeyer, Christoph Trebesch and Mitu Gulati, the amount of debt for which the Greek state was forgiven was on the order of 100 billion euros. Without this aid, the amount of Greece’s debt would have increased between 2011 and 2014 by 61 billion euros (100 billion minus the aforementioned 39 billion). This is not nothing for a country like Greece. However, note that Greek debt accounts for only 3.5% of the euro zone’s total public debt.
Furthermore, how were the other EU countries faring at the same time? No better! The addiction to public debt, if we can indeed speak of addiction, is general. The public debt of the EU and the euro zone rose by 6 GDP points, or by 1400 billion and 800 billion respectively. By comparison, the increase in the Greek debt is a drop in the ocean. Germany’s public debt rose by 68 billion euros, Italy’s by 227 billion, Spain’s and France’s by 285 billion respectively, and the United Kingdom’s by 277 billion pounds, or 470 billion euros, again according to Eurostat. Relative to their respective GDPs, Spain’s debt increased by almost 30 points, Italy’s by more than 15 points, France’s by 10 points, and the UK’s by nearly 8 points. Only Germany has seen its debt ratio go down, thanks to stronger economic growth.
Paul de Grauwe recently insisted on the fact that Greece’s debt is sustainable: given the various debt restructurings already undertaken, the public debt-to-GDP ratio of 180% would be roughly 90% in present value, i.e. after having accounted for future interest payments and scheduled repayments, some of which are in a very distant future.
Economists, including in this case Paul de Grauwe, use the state’s intertemporal budget constraint to understand the sustainability of public debt. Rather than using a retrospective approach, the public debt can be analysed from a prospective approach. If the following year’s debt depends on the present debt, then by symmetry, the present debt depends on the following year’s debt. But next year’s debt will depend on the following year’s debt, by iteration. Ultimately, the present debt depends on the debt of the following year and on and on until the end of time: it depends on future debts. But these future debts also depend on future public deficits. The intertemporal budget constraint thus expresses the fact that today’s public debt is equal to the sequence of future public deficits and to the final debt (that at the end of time), all expressed in present values.
In contrast to businesses and households, the state is supposed to have an infinite time horizon, which makes it possible to reset the present value of the debt at the “end of time” to zero. We can then say that the public debt is sustainable if future governments provide adequate public surpluses to pay off that debt. This is possible after periods of high public deficits, provided that these periods are followed by others during which governments accumulate budget surpluses. Given the extension of the maturity of Greek debt and the low level of future interest payments, the budget surplus required to repay the current debt is low. Paul de Grauwe concludes that Greece is subject to a liquidity crisis rather than a sovereign default crisis. So, again according to Paul de Grauwe, what is needed is to adjust the fiscal austerity plans and forthcoming reforms to the actual level of the public debt, which is substantially lower than the level being used as the basis for negotiations between the Greek state and the “institutions” (ECB, Commission, IMF). In other words, the “institutions” can loosen their grip.
The “Greek case” can thus be relativized and the divorce put off. Sue Ellen’s addiction is less exceptional than it seems at first glance.
 After 2015 and 2019, which will involve substantial repayments from the Greek state, the “difficult” years will then be situated beyond 2035 (see the amortization profile of Greece’s debt in Antonin et al., 2015).