Greece on a tightrope

By Céline Antonin, Raul Sampognaro, Xavier Timbeau and Sébastien Villemot

This text summarizes the special study, “Greece on a tightrope”

Since early 2015, Greece’s new government has been facing intense pressure. At the very time that it is negotiating to restructure its debt, it is also facing a series of repayment deadlines. On 12 May 2015, 750 million euros was paid to the IMF by drawing on the country’s international reserves, a sign that liquidity constraints are becoming more and more pressing, as is evidenced by the letter sent by Alex Tsipras to Christine Lagarde a few days before the deadline. The respite will be short: in June, the country has to make another payment to the IMF for 1.5 billion euros. These first two deadlines are only a prelude to the “wall of debt” that the government must deal with in the summer when it faces repayments of 6.5 billion euros to the ECB.

Up to now, Greece has made its payments despite its difficulties and the suspension of the bailout program negotiated with the “ex-Troika”. Thus, 7.2 billion euros in remaining disbursements have been blocked since February 2015; Greece has to come to an agreement with the former Troika before June 30 if it is to benefit from this financial windfall, otherwise it will fail to meet its payment deadlines to the ECB and IMF and thus default.

Besides Greece’s external repayments, the country must also meet its current expenses (civil servant salaries, retirement pensions). But the news on the fiscal front is not very encouraging (see State Budget Execution Monthly Bulletin, March 2015): for the first three months of the year, current revenue was nearly 600 million euros below projections. Only the use of its European holding funds, combined with an accounting reduction in expenditures (1.5 billion euros less than forecast) allowed the Greek government to generate a surplus of 1.7 billion euros and to meet its deadlines. So by using bookkeeping operations, the Greek government was able to transfer its debt either to public bodies or to its providers, thus confirming the tight liquidity constraints facing the State. Preliminary data at the end of April (to be taken with caution because they are neither definitive nor consolidated for all government departments) seem nevertheless to qualify this observation. At end April, tax revenues had returned to their expected level; however, the government’s ability to generate cash to avoid a payment default is due to its holding down public spending through the accounting operations described above. These accounting manipulations are simply emergency measures, and it is high time, six years after the onset of the Greek crisis, to put an end to this psychodrama and finally find a lasting solution to Greece’s fiscal difficulties.

Our study, “Greece on a tightrope”, considers what would be the best way to resolve the Greek debt crisis over the long term and the potential consequences of a Greek exit from the euro zone. We conclude that the most reasonable scenario would be to restructure the country’s debt, with a significant reduction in its present value (cutting it to 100% of Greek GDP). This is the only way to significantly reduce the likelihood of a Grexit, and is in the interest not only of Greece but also of the euro zone as a whole. Furthermore, this scenario would reduce the scale of the internal devaluation needed to stabilize Greece’s external position.

If the Eurogroup were to refuse to restructure Greece’s debt, a new assistance program would then be needed in order to deal with the current crisis of confidence and to ensure funding for the cash needs of the Greek State over the coming years. According to our calculations, this solution would require a third bailout plan of around 95 billion euros, and its success would depend on Greece being able to generate major primary budget surpluses (of around 4% to 5% of Greek GDP) over the coming decades. Historical experience shows that, due to political constraints, there is no guarantee of being able to run a surplus of this magnitude for such a long time, so this commitment is not very credible. A new assistance program would not therefore eliminate the risk that the Greek State would face yet another financial crisis in the coming years.

In other words, the full repayment of the Greek debt is based on the fiction of running a budget surplus for several decades. Accepting a Greek exit from the euro zone would imply a significant loss of claims that the world (mainly Europe) holds both on the Greek public sector (250 billion euros) and on the private sector (also on the order of 250 billion). To this easily quantifiable loss would be added the financial, economic, political and geopolitical impact of Greece’s departure from the euro zone and possibly the European Union. This might look like an easy choice, since writing off 200 billion euros in loans to the Greek State would make it possible to end this psychodrama for once and for all. But the political situation is deadlocked, and it is difficult to give up 200 billion euros without very strong counterparties and without dealing with the issue of moral hazard, in particular the possibility that this could induce other euro zone countries to demand large-scale restructurings of their own public debt.