What can be deduced from the figures on inflation?

By Eric Heyer

In May, inflation in the euro area moved closer to the ECB target. The sharp rise in inflation, from 1.2% to 1.9% per annum in the space of one month, did not nevertheless provoke a reaction, since the main reason for it was well known and common to all the countries: the surge in oil prices. After having plummeted to 30 dollars a barrel at the beginning of 2016, the price per barrel now stands at around 77 dollars, the highest level since 2014. Even after adjusting for the exchange rate – the euro has appreciated against the dollar – the price of a barrel has increased by almost 40% (18 euros) over the last 12 months, directly causing prices in the net oil importing countries to rise at an accelerating pace. In addition to this common effect, for France the impact of the hike in indirect taxes on tobacco and fuels, which came into force at the beginning of the year, will, according to our estimates, add 0.4 point to the price index.

At the same time, the underlying inflation (or core inflation) index, excluding products with volatile prices (such as oil and fresh produce) as well as prices subject to state intervention (electricity, gas, tobacco, etc.), is still not picking up pace and is staying below 1%. The second-round effect of an oil shock, which passes through a rise in wages, does not seem to be very significant, since consumers are absorbing most of the shock by reducing their purchasing power. This explains part of the observed slowdown in household consumption at the beginning of the year as well as the general lack of reaction of the monetary authorities to the announcement of the inflation figures.

There remains the question of the weakness of trend inflation and its link with the state of the economy. Have we already caught up with the output gap that arose since the Great Depression of 2008 (an output gap of close to zero), or are there still production capacities that can be mobilized in the event of additional demand (positive output gap)? In the first case, this would mean that the link between growth and inflation has been significantly broken; in the second case, this would indicate that the low level of inflation is not surprising and that the normalization of monetary policy needs to be gradual.

In 2017, even though the process of recovery was consolidating and spreading, most developed economies were still lagging behind their pre-crisis trajectory. Only a few seem to have already overcome the lag in growth. Thus, two categories of countries seem to be emerging: the first – in particular Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom – includes countries that have caught up with their potential level of production and are at the top of the cycle; the second – which includes France, Italy and Spain, for example – includes countries that are still experiencing a lag in production which, according to the economic analysis institutes, lies between 1 and 2 points of GDP for France and Italy and 3 points of GDP for Spain (Figure 1).

IMG1_post05-06_ENGThe presence of developed countries in both categories should logically result in the appearance of inflationary pressures in the countries listed in the first group and an inflation gap in those in the latter. However, these two phenomena were not apparent in 2017: as shown in Figure 2, the link between the level of the output gap and the underlying inflation rate is far from clear, casting doubt on the interpretation to be made with respect to the level of the output gap: to uncertainties relating to this notion is added that associated with the level of this gap in the past, in 2007 for example.

IMG2_post05-06_ENGGiven this high level of uncertainty, it seems appropriate to make a diagnosis based on how this output gap has varied since 2007. Such an analysis leads to a clearer consensus between the different institutes and to the disappearance of the first category of countries, those with no additional growth margin beyond their own potential growth. Indeed, according to these, in 2017 none of the major developed countries would have come back to its output gap level of 2007, including Germany. This gap would be around 1 GDP point for Germany, 2 GDP points for the United Kingdom and the United States, more than 3 GDP points for France and Italy and around 5 GDP points for Spain (Figure 3).

IMG3_post05-06_ENGThis analysis is more in line with the diagnosis of the renewal of inflation based on the concept of underlying inflation: the fact that the economies of the developed countries had not in 2017 recovered their cyclical level of 2007 explains that inflation rates were lower than those observed during the pre-crisis period (Figure 4). This finding is corroborated by an analysis based on criteria other than the output gap, notably the variation in the unemployment rate and the employment rate since the beginning of the crisis and in the rate of increase in working hours during this same period. Figure 5 illustrates these different criteria. On the basis of these latter criteria, the qualitative diagnosis of the cyclical situation of the different economies points to the existence of relatively high margins for a rebound in Spain, Italy and France. This rebound potential is low in Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom: only an increase in working time in the former or in the employment rate for the latter two could make this possible.



Is Greece in the process of divorce?

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[1].

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.


[1] 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).


Greece: an agreement, again and again

By Céline Antonin, Raul Sampognaro, Xavier TimbeauSébastien Villemot

… La même nuit que la nuit d’avant                  […The same night as the night before
Les mêmes endroits deux fois trop grands          The same places, twice too big
T’avances comme dans des couloirs                     
You walk through the corridors
Tu t’arranges pour éviter les miroirs                     
You try to avoid the mirrors
Mais ça continue encore et encore …                    
But it just goes on and on…]

Francis Cabrel, Encore et encore, 1985.

Just hours before an exceptional EU summit on Greece, an agreement could be signed that would lead to a deal on the second bail-out package for Greece, releasing the final tranche of 7.2 billion euros. Greece could then meet its deadlines in late June with the IMF (1.6 billion euros) as well as those in July and August with the ECB (6.6 billion euros) and again with the IMF (0.45 billion euros). At the end of August, Greece’s debt to the IMF could rise by almost 1.5 billion euros, as the IMF is contributing 3.5 billion euros to the 7.2 billion euro tranche.

Greece has to repay a total of 8.6 billion euros by September, and nearly 12 billion by the end of the year, which means funding needs that exceed the 7.2 billion euros covered by the negotiations with the Brussels Group (i.e. the ex-Troika). To deal with this, the Hellenic Financial Stability Fund (HFSF) could be used, to the tune of about 10 billion euros, but it will no longer be available for recapitalizing the banks.

If an agreement is reached, it will almost certainly be difficult to stick to it. First, Greece will have to face the current bank run (despite the apparent calm in front of the bank branches, more than 6 billion euros were withdrawn last week according to the Financial Times). Moreover, even if an agreement can put off for a time the scenario of a Greek exit from the euro zone, the prospect of exceptional taxes or a tax reform could deter the return of funds to the country’s banks. Furthermore, the agreement is likely to include a primary surplus of 1% of GDP by the end of 2015. But the information on the execution of the state budget up to May 2015 (published 18 June 2015) showed that revenue continues to be below the initial forecast (- 1 billion euros), reflecting the country’s very poor economic situation since the start of 2015. It is true that the lower tax revenues were more than offset by lower spending (down almost 2 billion). But this is cash basis accounting. The monthly bulletin for April 2015, published on 8 June 2015, shows that the central government payment arrears have increased by 1.1 billion euros since the beginning of 2015. It seems impossible that, even with an excellent tourist season, the Greek government could make up this lag in six months and generate a primary surplus of 1.8 billion euros calculated on an accrual basis.

A new round of fiscal tightening would penalize activity that is already at half-mast, and it could be even more inefficient in that this would create strong incentives to underreport taxes in a context where access to liquidity will be particularly difficult. The Greek government could try to play with tax collection, but introducing a new austerity plan would be suicidal politically and economically. Discussion needs to get started on a third aid package, including in particular negotiations on the reduction of Greece’s debt and with the counterparties to this relief.

Any agreement reached in the coming days risks being very fragile. Reviving some growth in Greece would require that financing for the economy is functioning once again, and that some confidence was restored. It would also require addressing Greece’s problems in depth and finding an agreement that was sustainable over several years, with short-term steps that need to be adapted to the country’s current situation. In our study, “Greece on the tightrope [in French, or the English-language post describing the study at http://www.ofce.sciences-po.fr/blog/greece-tightrope/],” we analysed the macroeconomic conditions for the sustainability of the Greek debt. More than ever before, Greece is on the tightrope. And the euro zone with it.


The spirit of the letter of the law … to avoid a “Graccident”

Raul Sampognaro and Xavier Timbeau

The noose, in the words of Alexis Tsipras, is getting tighter and tighter around the Greek government. The last tranche of the aid program (7.2 billion euros) has still not been released as the Brussels Group (the ex-Troika) has not accepted the conditions on the aid plan. The Greek state is therefore on the brink of default. It might be thought that this is simply one more episode in the drama that Greece has been acting out with its creditors and that, once again, at the last moment the money needed will be found. But if Greece has managed to meet its deadlines up to now, it has been at the price of expedients that it is not at all certain can be used again.

While tax revenues since the start of the year have been almost one billion euros behind the anticipated targets, the expenses for wages and pensions still have to be paid each month. This time the wall is getting closer, and an agreement is needed if the game is to continue. In June, Greece must pay 1.6 billion euros to the IMF in four tranches (5, 12, 16 and 19 June). On 28 May an IMF spokesperson confirmed the existence of a rule that would make it possible to group these payments on the last day of the month (a rule last used by Zambia in the 1980s). Since it would then take six weeks for the IMF to consider Greece in default, the country could still gain a few days after 30 June before the deadline with the ECB (with 2 tranches for a total 3.5 billion euros by 20 July 2015).

Historically very few countries have failed to honour their payments to the IMF (currently only Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe are in arrears to the IMF, for a few hundred million dollars). As the IMF is the last resort in case of a crisis in liquidity or the balance of payments, it has, as such, the status of preferred creditor, so defaulting on its debt may trigger cross defaults on other securities, in particular, in the Greek case, those held by the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). This could make them due immediately. A Greek default with the IMF could well jeopardize Greece’s entire public debt and force the ECB to reject Greek bonds as collateral in the Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) operations, the only firewall remaining against the collapse of the Greek banking system.

The legal consequences of such a default are difficult to grasp (which says a lot about the modern financial system). An article published by the Bank for International Settlements, dated July 2013, whose author, Antonio Sainz de Vicuña, was then Director General of ECB Legal Services, is very informative about this issue in the context of the Monetary Union.

In presenting the legal framework, Sainz de Vicuña focuses on Article 123 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), a pillar of the Monetary Union, which prohibits the ECB or the national central banks from financing government[1]. In a footnote, the author concedes that there are two exceptions to this rule:

–          “Credit institutions controlled by the public sector, which may obtain central bank liquidity on terms identical to private credit institutions.” This exception appears explicitly in paragraph 2 of Article 123 of the TFEU[2].

–          “The financing of state obligations vis-à-vis the IMF.”

This second aspect has attracted our attention because it is little known to the general public, it does not appear explicitly in the Treaty and it could be a solution, at least in the short term, to avoid Greece being put in default by the IMF .

In searching the corpus of European law, this exception is defined more precisely in Council Regulation no. 3603/93,  which clarifies the terms of Article 123 of the TFEU, which it is authorized to do under paragraph 2 of Article 125 of the TFEU[3]. More specifically, in Article 7:

The financing by the European Central Bank or the national central banks of obligations falling upon the public sector vis-à-vis the International Monetary Fund or resulting from the implementation of the medium-term financial assistance facility set up by Regulation (EEC) No 1969/88 (4) shall not be regarded as a credit facility within the meaning of Article 104 of the Treaty[4].

The justification for this article is that: during quota increases in the IMF, the financing by the central bank was accepted because It had as a counterpart an asset comparable to international reserves. In the spirit of the law, financing Greek borrowing from the IMF by a credit from the central bank (the ECB or the Bank of Greece) should not be permitted. The obligations falling upon the Greek state probably only concern, according to the spirit of the text, the contribution to the IMF quotas. Nevertheless, the spirit of the law is not the law, and the proper interpretation of the phrase “obligations falling upon the public sector vis-à-vis the International Monetary Fund” could open another door for Greece. Given the consequences of a default with the IMF – in particular the continuity of the ELA – invoking this could be justified as preserving the functioning of the Greek payment system, a role falling within the mission of the ECB.

Beyond the legal possibility of a central bank financing Greece’s debt to the IMF, which would certainly be challenged by some governments, this action would open up a political conflict. A MemberState could be accused of violating (the spirit of) the Treaties, even though that is not a reason to exclude it (according to the ECB’s Legal Services). But is this really an obstacle in view of the importance a default on Greece’s debt would have for the sustainability of the single currency?

Greece’s cash flow problems are not new. Since January, the government has been financing its expenditure through accounting transactions that allowed it to offset tax losses. In particular, on 12 May, the Greek government was able to repay an IMF loan tranche by drawing on an emergency fund that was essentially international reserves. The Eurosystem was able to use this exception to give Greece extra time in order to continue the negotiations and avoid the accident.

[1] Paragraph 1 of the article stipulates that, “Overdraft facilities or any other type of credit facility with the European Central Bank or with the central banks of the Member States (hereinafter referred to as “national central banks”) in favour of Union institutions, bodies, offices or agencies, central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law, or public undertakings of Member States shall be prohibited, as shall the purchase directly from them by the European Central Bank or national central banks of debt instruments.”

[2] Which stipulates that, “Paragraph 1 shall not apply to publicly owned credit institutions which, in the context of the supply of reserves by central banks, shall be given the same treatment by national central banks and the European Central Bank as private credit institutions.”

[3] Which stipulates that, “The Council, on a proposal from the Commission and after consulting the European Parliament, may, as required, specify definitions for the application of the prohibitions referred to in Articles 123 and 124 and in this Article.”

[4] Article 104 became Article 123 in the TFEU.


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.


The Greek debt – a European story …

By Catherine Mathieu and  Henri Sterdyniak

At end 2014, Greece’s debt was 317 billion euros, or 176% of its GDP, up from 103% in 2007, despite debt relief of 107 billion in 2012[1]. This debt is the result of a triple blindness, on the part of: the financial markets, which lent to Greece until 2009, heedless of the unsustainable level of its public deficit (6.7% of GDP in 2007) and its trade deficit (10.4% of GDP in 2007); the Greek government and ruling elite who, thanks to the low interest rates permitted by its membership in the euro zone, allowed unbalanced growth, based on financial and real estate bubbles, corruption, poor governance, fraud and tax evasion; and Europe’s institutions, which after the laxism of 2001-2007, imposed crushing, humiliating austerity programmes on the country, with the oversight of the troika, a strange threesome consisting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission (EC). In the eyes of the troika, the austerity programmes were needed to cut the public deficit and debt and put the Greek economy on a path to growth. While the programmes did indeed help to reduce the public deficit (which was only about 2.5% of GDP in 2014, i.e. after excluding interest expenses, a surplus of around 0.5% of GDP), they have pushed up the ratio of debt to GDP, due to the collapse in the country’s GDP, which is now 25% less than in 2008. Austerity has above all plunged Greece into economic and social distress, as is sadly illustrated in an unemployment rate of over 25% and a poverty rate of 36%.

The tree of Greek debt must not, however, hide the forest: from 2007 to 2014, the public debt of the OECD countries as a whole increased from 73% of GDP to 112%, reflecting profound imbalances in the global economy. Due to financial globalization, the victory of capital over labour and growing inequality, the developed countries need large public debts; these debts are generally not reimbursable, since reimbursement assumes that agents with a surplus agree to run deficits.

Take the example of Germany. It wants to maintain a large external surplus (7% of GDP), which weighs down its European partners and has contributed to an excessively strong euro. In order for Greece and other European countries to repay their public debts, they need to be able to export, especially to Germany; Germany would in turn have to accept an external deficit and thus greatly increase public spending and wages, which it does not want to do. The contradictory demands of the surplus countries (to maintain a surplus but be repaid) are leading the entire euro zone into depression. Fortunately for the European economy, neither France nor Italy is adhering strictly to its European commitments, while the UK is not subject to them.

Can we require Greece to continue to meet its European commitments, which have led to a deep depression? To reduce its debt to 60% of GDP within 20 years? The effort needed to do this depends on the difference between the interest rate paid on debt (1.9% in 2014) and the nominal rate of GDP growth (-1.2% in 2014). Even if Greece managed to accelerate its growth so that the growth rate equalled the interest rate for its loans, it would still have to turn over 6% of its GDP every year; this drain would unbalance the economy and put the brakes on growth. The Greek people cannot be asked to make further economic and social sacrifices.

If Greece were an emerging country, the solution would be obvious: a strong devaluation and default on the debt. The euro zone, on the contrary, cannot be maintained without solidarity between its members and without a turnabout in its economic policies. Europe cannot ask Greece’s new government to maintain an austerity programme that has no prospects or to abandon its electoral programme and implement the failed policy negotiated by the previous government. A refusal to compromise would lead to the worst result: a showdown, a financial freeze on Greece, and then its withdrawal from the euro zone and perhaps the EU. The people would rightly feel that Europe is a straitjacket and that democratic votes don’t count. On the other hand, it will be difficult for the northern European countries and the Commission to give up their demands: tight control of national fiscal policies, a reduction in public debts and deficits, conditionalities on aid, privatization policies and structural reforms.

Syriza’s programme includes the restoration of social welfare and the public services as well as a decent standard of living for retirees and employees, but also, very clearly, tax reform, the fight against corruption and bad governance, and the search for a new development model based on the renovation of production and re-industrialization, driven by the State and a restored banking sector, based on public and private investment. This is an ambitious path that presupposes a fight against greed and the inertia of the dominant classes by mobilizing the whole of society, but it is the only future with promise.

The only solution is a compromise that would open the door to a new policy in Europe. Let’s distinguish the Greek question from the European question. Europe’s institutions must agree to negotiate a restructuring of Greek debt. This 317 billion euro debt is now held as follows: 32 billion by the IMF, and 223 billion by the ECB, the European Financial Stability Facility, and the other Member States, i.e. 80% by public institutions. This enabled the private sector to shed Greek debt, but it has not helped the Greek economy. Greece already benefits from low interest rates and lengthy repayment deadlines [2]. Given the low level of current interest rates and the hunger of financial investors for the risk-free sovereign debt of most Member States, there is no reason for a default on Greek debt; it simply needs to be restructured and secured. We must avoid a situation where every year Greece is in the position of having to repay and refinance an excessive amount of debt, and thus finds itself at the mercy of the capital markets or new negotiations with the troika. Greece needs a long-term agreement based on mutual trust.

Europe should give the Greek people time for their economy to recover. Greece’s debt needs to be made sustainable by converting it into very long-term secured debt, possibly confined within the European Stability Mechanism, so that it is sheltered from speculation. This debt could be financed by Eurobonds with very low rates (0.5% at 10 years, or even slightly negative rates by issuing securities indexed to inflation). European taxpayers would thus not be saddled with the burden, and the Greek debt load would be acceptable. It is Greek economic growth that will make it possible to cut the ratio of debt to GDP. The reimbursement should be limited and, as proposed by Greece, depend on growth (e.g. be zero when the volume of growth is less than 2%, and then 0.25 GDP point per additional point of growth). The agreements with Greece should be reviewed to allow the new government to implement its programme for social and production renewal. Two key points must guide the negotiations: that responsibility for the situation is shared between Greece and Europe, that each must bear its share of the burden (the banks have already undergone a partial default); and that Greece must be helped to recover from its deep depression, which means support for consumption in the short term, and in the medium term stimulating and financing the country’s productive renewal.

France should support Syriza’s proposal for a European conference on debt, because the problem is not just Greek. The Greek experience merely exemplifies the structural problems with Europe’s economic governance and the challenges facing all the Member States. This governance needs to be overhauled in order to overcome the economic, social and political crisis gripping the euro zone. The turning point represented by the Juncker Plan must be given resolute support (investment support of 315 billion euros in three years), as must the ECB’s quantitative easing programme (1140 billion in 18 months).

The public debts of the euro zone countries must be guaranteed by the ECB and all the Member States. To absorb them, the ECB must keep long-term rates well below the rate of growth, which will require taxing financial activities and controlling the orientation of bank loans to prevent the rise of speculative bubbles. Instead of cutting public and social welfare spending, Europe must coordinate the fight against tax competition and tax evasion by the wealthy and by multinational firms. The unsustainable fiscal straitjacket imposed by the Stability Pact and the European fiscal treaty must be replaced by the coordination of economic policies aimed at full employment and resolving imbalances between euro zone countries. Finally, Europe must propose a strategy for recovery from the crisis based on boosting domestic demand in the surplus countries, coordinating wage policies, and supporting investments that prepare the ecological and social transition. The challenge here is crucial. We need to rethink the way economic policies are organized in Europe in order to allow countries to conduct policies that are different and autonomous, but coordinated. This is the only way the euro zone can survive and prosper.



[1] More than half of which was used by the Greek state to secure the country’s banking system.

[2] Moreover, the ECB Member states are repaying it any gains that they make on Greek bonds.


The Greek Sisyphus and its public debt: towards an end to the ordeal?

By Céline Antonin

After its failure to elect a new President by a qualified majority vote, the Greek Parliament was dissolved, with early elections to be held on 25 January 2015. The radical left party Syriza is leading the opinion polls on the election, ahead of the “New Democracy” party of the outgoing Prime Minister, Anthony Samaras. While Syriza’s economic programme has met with enthusiasm from the population, it has aroused concern from the Troika of creditors (IMF, ECB and EU), particularly on three issues: the country’s potential withdrawal from the euro zone, the implementation of a fiscal stimulus, and a partial sovereign default. This last topic will be the main issue after the elections.

The election’s real stakes: restructuring Greece’s public debt

Fears about Greece’s potential exit from the euro zone (the infamous “Grexit”) need to be nuanced. The situation is different from what it was at the time of the sovereign debt crisis, when bond rate differentials were fuelling worry about contagion and the breakup of the euro zone. Furthermore, Syriza is not in favour of leaving the euro, and no-one can force the country’s hand, given that there is no provision for this in any text. Finally, the consequences of such a decision on the other members could be severe, so that a Greek withdrawal from the euro zone would come only as a last resort.

Syriza is calling for an end to austerity and for a fiscal stimulus of 11 billion euros along with restoring the minimum wage to its previous level, better pensions, rehiring civil servants and increased public spending. Can a compromise be reached with the Troika? Nothing is less sure, and it is virtually certain that Syriza will have to revise its ambitions downwards. The Greek deficit has of course shrunk. The country ran a small primary surplus in 2014 and is expected to continue its fiscal consolidation policy in 2015-2016. But Greece must continue to borrow to finance the interest on the debt, to repay or renew the debt reaching maturity and to repay the loans from the IMF. To do this, Greece must rely largely on external aid. From the second half of 2015, the country will face a financing gap of 12.5 billion euros (19.6 billion euros if it does not get IMF assistance). Moreover, Greece’s still fragile banks[1] are very dependent on access to the ECB’s Emergency Liquidity Assistance Program (ELA), which allows them to obtain emergency liquidity from the Bank of Greece. If Greece rejects the reforms, a showdown with the Troika is likely. The ECB has already threatened to cut off the country’s access to liquidity. In addition, the Troika is the main creditor of Greece, which however has a new bargaining point: to the extent that Greece borrows only what it needs to repay its debt, and not to fund its budget deficit, it could threaten its creditors with a unilateral default on payments, even if this is a dangerous game that could deprive it of access to market financing for many years to come.

It is precisely this issue of restructuring Greece’s debt and a partial default that is being emphasized by Syriza and which will likely be one of the main post-election issues. Alexis Tsipras wants to cancel a portion of the public debt, to put a moratorium on interest payments, and to condition repayments on the country’s economic performance. According to forecasts by the EU Commission and the IMF, Greece’s public debt ratio is expected to fall from 175% of GDP in 2013 to 128% in 2020. However, the assumptions underlying this scenario are not realistic, i.e. nominal growth of more than 3% in 2015, a primary surplus of 4.5% of GDP between 2016 and 2019, etc. Given the size of Greece’s public debt in 2013 and its amortization profile (with reimbursements amounting to 13 billion euros in 2019 and up to 18 billion euros in 2039[2]), a new restructuring seems inevitable.

A public debt that is essentially held by euro zone countries

Since the onset of the Greek crisis in autumn 2009, the composition of the country’s public debt has changed substantially. While in 2010, the debt was held by financial investors, the picture in early 2015 is very different [3]. After two assistance plans (in 2010 and 2012) and a restructuring of the public debt held by the private sector in March 2012 (Private Sector Involvement Plan), 75% of the public debt now consists of loans (Table 1). Together the IMF, the ECB, the national central banks and the countries of the Eurozone hold 80% of Greece’s public debt.


Conversely, since the March 2012 restructuring plan, Europe’s banks have sharply reduced their exposure to Greece’s public debt (Table 2). Moreover, their capital levels have risen since 2010, especially with the gradual implementation of the Basel 3 reform. The banks thus have a safety margin in the case of a partial default by Greece.


Since more than half of Greece’s public debt is held by members of the euro zone, no renegotiations can take place without their involvement.

So what are the possibilities for restructuring the debt?

The European countries have already made several concessions to help Greece service its debt:

– The maturity of the loans has been increased and the interest rate on loans granted by the EFSF has been reduced. For the first assistance program (bilateral loans), the initial maturity was 2026 (with a grace period until 2019) and the interest rate was indexed to the 3-month Euribor plus a risk premium of 300 basis points. In 2012, this risk premium was cut to 50 basis points and the maturity was extended by 15 years to 2041;

– Any profits made by the ECB and the national central banks on the bonds they hold were returned to Greece;

– Interest payments on the EFSF loans were deferred by 10 years.

Solutions like some used in the past could be implemented. The debt could be rescheduled. Indeed, the rate charged on the loans in the first assistance package (3-month Euribor + 50 basis points) is generally higher than the financing costs of the European countries, and could be lowered. And the term of the loans in the first and second assistance packages could be extended by another 10 years, until 2051. According to the Bruegel think-tank, these two measures combined would reduce Greece’s total repayments by 31.7 billion euros.

These measures nevertheless seem limited for resolving the issue of Greek debt: they only postpone the problem. Other measures are needed to relieve Greece of its public debt burden. As the euro zone countries are the main ones exposed to Greece’s debt, they have an interest in finding a compromise: if there is a unilateral default, it is taxpayers throughout Europe who will wind up paying.

As for the IMF, there’s no point waiting for debt forgiveness. The institution is indeed the senior creditor in case of a country’s default, and lender of last resort. Since its founding, it has never cancelled a debt. It is therefore with the members of the euro zone, Greece’s main creditors, that a partial default needs to be negotiated. On the one hand, Greece can threaten an uncoordinated unilateral default, causing losses for its creditors. But on the other, it has no interest in alienating euro zone members and the ECB, which have been its main supporters during the crisis. A sudden default would deprive it of access to market financing for many years; even if Greece has achieved a primary surplus, the situation is unstable and it still needs external financing, even if only to honour its repayments to the IMF. One solution would be for the euro zone countries to accept a discount on the face value of the government debt they hold, as was done with private investors in March 2012.

In conclusion, Greece is facing a series of challenges. In the short term, the priority is to find sources of financing to get through 2015. To do this, the country will have to deal with the Troika, in particular the ECB, whose action will be crucial. The Bank has warned Greece that if negotiations fail, it could cut off the country’s access to liquidity. Furthermore, on 22 January 2015, the ECB must reach its long-awaited decision on quantitative easing; the issue is whether the ECB will accept the redemption of Greek government bonds. In the longer term, the issue of restructuring the debt will inevitably arise, regardless of who wins the polls. However, the restructuring is likely to be easier with public creditors than with the private banks, if, that is, Greece has in turn won the trust of its European partners.


[1] See the results of the stress tests published by the ECB on 26 October 2014.

[2]See the Hellenic Republic Public Debt Bulletin, no. 75, September 2014, Table 6.

[3] For a comparison with the situation in June 2012, see Céline Antonin, “Retour à la drachme: un drame insurmontable?”, [Return to the drachma: an insurmountable drama?], Note de l’OFCE no. 20, June 2012.


The strange forecasts of the European Commission for 2014

By Mathieu Plane

The figures for French growth for 2014 published by the European Commission (EC) in its last report in May 2013 appear to reflect a relative consensus. Indeed, the Commission expects GDP to grow by 1.1% in 2014, which is relatively close to the forecasts by the OECD (1.3%) and the IMF (0.9%) (Table 1). However, these forecasts of broadly similar growth hide some substantial differences. First, in defining future fiscal policy, the Commission, unlike the other institutions, considers only the measures already approved. While the Commission’s growth forecasts for 2013 included the measures enacted by the Finance Act for 2013 (and therefore the austerity measures), the forecasts for 2014 do not include any forthcoming fiscal measure, even though according to the stability programme submitted to Brussels in April 2013 the government plans austerity measures amounting to 20 billion euros in 2014 (a fiscal impulse of -1 GDP point). The exercise carried out by the Commission for 2014 is thus closer to an economic framework than an actual forecast, as it fails to include the most likely fiscal policy for the year. As a result, the French government has no reason to rely on the Commission’s growth forecast for 2014 as it makes radically different assumptions about fiscal policy. But beyond this difference, there is also a problem with the overall coherence of the economic framework set out by the Commission for 2014. It is indeed difficult to understand how for 2014 the Commission can forecast an increase in the unemployment rate with a significantly worsened output gap and a positive fiscal impulse.

Overall, all the institutions share the idea that the output gap in France is currently very wide, lying somewhere between -3.4 percent of GDP (for the EC) and -4.3 percent (for the OECD) in 2013 (Table 1). Everyone thus believes that current GDP is very far from its long-term trajectory, and this deficit in activity should therefore lead, in the absence of an external shock or a constraint on fiscal and monetary policy, to a spontaneous catch-up in growth in the coming years. This should result in a growth rate that is higher than the potential, regardless of the latter’s value. So logically, if there is a neutral or positive fiscal stimulus, GDP growth should therefore be much greater than the trend potential. For the IMF, the negative fiscal impulse (-0.2 percent of GDP) is more than offset by the spontaneous catch-up of the economy, resulting in a slight closing of the output gap (0.2) in 2014. For the OECD, the strongly negative fiscal impulse (-0.7 percent of GDP) does not allow closure of the output gap, which continues to widen (-0.3), but less than the negative impact of the impulse due to the spontaneous process of catching up. In both these cases (OECD and IMF), the restrictive fiscal policy holds back growth but leads to an improvement in the public accounts in 2014 (0.5 percent of GDP for the OECD and 0.3 for the IMF).

As for the Commission, its budget forecasts include a positive fiscal impulse for France in 2014 (+0.4 GDP point). As we saw above, the Commission takes into account only the fiscal measures already approved that affect 2014. However, for 2014, if no new fiscal measures are taken, the tax burden should spontaneously decrease due to the fall between 2013 and 2014 in the yield of certain tax measures or the partial financing of other measures (such as the CICE Tax credit for competitiveness and jobs). This could of course result in a positive fiscal impulse in 2014. But despite this impact, which is similar to a stimulus policy (on a small scale), the closure of the output gap (0.1 percent of GDP) is less than the fiscal impulse. This suggests implicitly that fiscal policy has no effect on activity and especially that there is no spontaneous catch-up possible for the French economy despite the very large output gap. But it is not clear why this is the case. Suddenly, the government balance deteriorates in 2014 (-0.3 percent of GDP) and the unemployment rate rises by 0.3 percentage points (which may seem paradoxical with an output gap that doesn’t worsen). The French economy is thus losing on all fronts according to the major macroeconomic indicators.

In view of the potential growth, the output gaps and the fiscal impulses adopted by the Commission (the OECD and the IMF), and based on incorporating relatively standard assumptions (a short-term fiscal multiplier equal to 1 and spontaneous closure of the output gap in 5 years), one would have expected the Commission to go for growth in France in 2014 of 2.1% (1.7% for the OECD and 1.2% for the IMF), and thus a steep reduction in unemployment.

Paradoxically, we do not find this same logic in the Commission’s forecasts for Germany and the euro zone as a whole (Table 2). In the case of Germany, despite a slight deterioration in the output gap in 2013 (-1 GDP point), which would normally point to some spontaneous catch-up by the German economy in 2014, and an almost neutral fiscal impulse (0.1 GDP point), Germany’s growth in 2014 is expected to be 1.8%, thus permitting the output gap to close by 0.5 GDP point, resulting in a fall in the unemployment rate and a reduction in Germany’s public deficit in 2014.

In the case of the euro zone, we find the same scenario: a marginally positive fiscal impulse (0.2 percent of GDP) and a rapid reduction in the output gap (0.7 percent of GDP), which translates both into an improvement in the public accounts despite the positive fiscal impulse and a fall in the unemployment rate (even if we would have expected a greater reduction in the latter in light of the improvement in the output gap).

Given the potential growth, the output gaps and the fiscal impulses adopted for each country by the Commission, the forecast for 2014 could have been for growth of 2.1% in France, 1.6% in Germany and 1.3% for the euro zone.

Finally, why would France, despite a greater output gap than Germany and the euro zone and a stronger positive fiscal impulse, experience an increase in its unemployment rate in 2014 while the rate falls in the other countries? Should we interpret this as reflecting that it is a problem or even impossible for the Commission to include in a forecast that a policy without fiscal consolidation could lead to growth and reduce unemployment spontaneously in France?



Cyprus: a well-conceived plan, a country in ruins…

By Anne-Laure Delatte and Henri Sterdyniak

The plan that has just been adopted sounds the death knell for the banking haven in Cyprus and implements a new principle for crisis resolution in the euro zone: banks must be saved by the shareholders and creditors without using public money. [1] This principle is fair. Nevertheless, the recession in Cyprus will be deep, and the new extension of the Troika’s powers further discredits the European project. Once again the latest developments in the crisis are laying bare the deficiencies in euro zone governance. It is necessary to save the euro zone almost every quarter, but every rescue renders the zone’s structure even more fragile.

Cyprus never should have been accepted into the euro zone. But Europe privileged expansion over coherence and depth. Cyprus is a banking, tax and regulatory haven, which taxes companies at the rate of only 10%, while the balance sheet of its oversized banking system is nearly eight times its GDP (18 billion euros). Cyprus is in fact a transit hub for Russian capital: the Cypriot banks have about 20 billion euros in deposits from Russia, along with 12 billion euros in deposits of Russian banks. These funds, sometimes of dubious origin, are often reinvested in Russia: Cyprus is the largest foreign investor in Russia, to the tune of about 13 billion euros per year. Thus, by passing through Cyprus, some Russian capital is laundered and legally secured. As Europe is very committed to the principle of the free movement of capital and the freedom of establishment, it has simply let this go.

Having invested in Greek government debt and granted loans to Greek companies that are unable to pay due to the crisis, the island’s oversized banking system has lost a lot of money and has fostered a housing bubble that burst, resulting in heavy losses. Given the size of the banking system’s balance sheet, these losses represent a significant share of national GDP. The banking system is in trouble, and as a consequence the markets speculated against Cypriot government debt, interest rates rose, the country plunged into a recession, and the deficit deepened. In 2012, growth was negative (-2.5%); the deficit has reached 5.5% of GDP, the public debt has risen to 87% of GDP, the trade deficit stands at 6% of GDP, and the unemployment rate is 14.7%.

The country needed assistance both to finance itself and to recapitalize its banks. Cyprus requested 17 billion euros, the equivalent of its annual GDP. Ten billion euros of loans were granted, of which nine will be provided by the ESM and one by the IMF. From a financial point of view, the EU certainly did not need that billion, which merely gives the IMF a place at the negotiating table.

In exchange, Cyprus will have to comply with the requirements of the Troika, i.e. reductions of 15% in civil servant salaries and 10% in spending on social welfare (pensions, family allowances and unemployment), the introduction of structural reforms, and privatization. It is the fourth country in Europe to be managed by the Troika, which can once again impose its dogmatic recipes.

Cyprus is to lift its tax rate on corporations from 10 to 12.5%, which is low, but Europe could not ask Cyprus to do more than Ireland. Cyprus must increase the tax rate on bank interest from 15 to 30%. This is a timid step in the direction of the necessary tax harmonization.

But what about the banks? The countries of Europe were faced with a difficult choice:

–          helping Cyprus to save its banking system amounted to saving Russian capital with European taxpayers’ money, and showed that Europe would cover all the abuses of its Member States, which would have poured more fuel on the fire in Germany, Finland and the Netherlands.

–          asking Cyprus to recapitalize its banks itself would push its public debt up to more than 150% of GDP, an unsustainable level.

The first plan, released on 16 March, called for a 6.75% contribution from deposits of less than 100,000 euros and applied a levy of only 9.9% on the share of deposits exceeding this amount. In the mind of the Cypriot government, this arrangement had the advantage of not so heavily compromising the future of Cyprus as a base of Russian capital. But it called into question the commitment by the EU (the guarantee of deposits under 100,000 euros), which undermined all the banks in the euro zone.

Europe finally reached the right decision: not to make the people alone pay, to respect the guarantee of 100,000 euros, but to make the banks’ shareholders pay, along with their creditors and holders of deposits of over 100,000 euros. It is legitimate to include those with large deposits that had been remunerated at high interest rates. It is the model of Iceland, and not Ireland, that has been adopted: in case of banking difficulties, large deposits remunerated at high rates should not be treated as public debt, at the expense of the taxpayers.

Under the second plan, the country’s two largest banks, the Bank of Cyprus (BOC) and Laiki, which together account for 80% of the country’s bank assets, are being restructured. Laiki, which was hit hardest by developments in Greece and which was more heavily involved in the collection of Russian deposits, has been closed, with deposits of less than 100,000 euros transferred to the BOC, which takes over Laiki’s assets, while it also takes charge of the 9 billion euros that the ECB has lent it. Laiki customers lose the portion of their deposits over 100,000 euros (4.2 billion), while holders of Laiki equities and bonds lose everything. At the BOC, the excesses of deposits above 100,000 euros are placed in a bad bank and frozen until the restructuring of the BOC is completed, and a portion of these (up to 40%) will be converted into BOC shares in order to recapitalize the bank. Hence the 10 billion euro loan from the EU will not be used to resolve the banking problem. It will instead allow the government to repay its private creditors and avoid a sovereign bankruptcy. Remember that the national and European taxpayers are not called on to repair the excesses of the world of finance.

This is also a first application of the banking union. Deposits are indeed guaranteed up to 100,000 euros. As requested by the German government, the banks must be saved by the shareholders and creditors, without public money. The cost of bailing out the banks should be borne by those who have benefited from the system when it was generating benefits.

From our viewpoint, the great advantage is ending the poorly controlled financial status of Cyprus. It is a healthy precedent that will discourage cross-border investment. It is of course regrettable that Europe is not attacking other countries whose banking and financial systems are also oversized (Malta, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom) and other regulatory and tax havens (the Channel Islands, Ireland, the Netherlands), but it is a first step.

This plan is thus well thought-out. But as was modestly acknowledged by the Vice-President of the European Commission, Olli Rehn, the near future will be very difficult for Cyprus and its people. What are the risks?

Risk of a deposit flight and liquidity crisis: unlike the initial plan, which called for a levy on all deposits, the new plan is consistent with reopening the banks relatively quickly. In fact, the banks are staying closed as long as the authorities fear massive withdrawals by depositors, which would automatically lead to a liquidity crisis for the banks concerned. However, as small depositors are not affected and large depositors have their assets frozen until further notice, it seems that the risk of a bank run can be ruled out. A problem will nevertheless arise when the large deposits are unfrozen. Their almost certain withdrawal will very likely result in a loss of liquidity for the BOC, which will need to be compensated by specially provided liquidity lines at the ECB. Some small depositors who take fright could also withdraw their funds. Similarly, holders of large deposits in other banks, although in less difficulty and thus not affected, could worry that the levies will be extended in the future and therefore try to move their money abroad. Cyprus remains at the mercy of a liquidity crisis. This is why the authorities have announced exceptional controls on capital movements when the banks reopen, so as to prevent a massive flight of deposits abroad. This is a novelty for the EU. But the transition, which means shrinking the Cypriot banking sector from 8 times the island’s GDP to 3.5 times, could well prove difficult and may have some contagion effects on the European markets, since the banks will have to sell a significant amount of assets.

Risk of a long recession: the halving of the size of the banking sector will not take place painlessly, as the entire economy will suffer: bank employees, service partners, attorneys, consultants, auditors, etc. Some Cypriot companies, along with some wealthy households, will lose part of their bank holdings.

However, the plan requires simultaneous fiscal austerity measures (on the order of 4.5% of GDP), structural reforms and the privatizations so dear to Europe’s institutions. These austerity measures, coming at a time when key economic activity is being sacrificed, will lead to a lengthy recession. The Cypriots all have in mind the example of Greece, where consumption has fallen by more than 30% and GDP by over 25%. This shrinkage will lead to lower tax revenues, a higher debt ratio, etc. Europe will then demand more austerity measures. Seeing another country trapped in this spiral will further discredit the European project.

Some desire to pull out of the euro zone has been simmering since the beginning of the crisis in Cyprus, and there is little chance that it will die out now.

It is therefore necessary to give new opportunities to Cyprus (and to Greece and Portugal and Spain), not the economic and social ruin imposed by the Troika, but an economic revival involving a plan for industrial reconversion and reconstruction. For example, the exploitation of the gas fields discovered in 2011 on the south of the island could offer a way out of the crisis. It would still be necessary to finance the investment required to exploit them and generate the financial resources the country needs. It is time to mobilize genuine assistance, a new Marshall Plan financed by the countries running a surplus.

Risk of chain reactions in the banking systems of other Member States: the European authorities must make a major effort at communications to explain this plan, and that is not easy. From this point of view, the first plan was a disaster, as it demonstrated that the guarantee of deposits of less than 100,000 euros can be annulled by tax measures. For the second plan, the authorities must simultaneously explain that the plan is consistent with the principle of the banking union – to make the shareholders, creditors and major depositors pay – while clarifying that it has a specific character – to put an end to a bank, fiscal and regulatory haven, and so will not apply to other countries. Let’s hope that the shareholders, creditors and major depositors in the banks in the other Member States, particularly Spain, will allow themselves to be convinced. Otherwise significant amounts of capital will flee the euro zone.

Risk of weakening the banking union: the Cypriot banking system was of course poorly managed and controlled. It took unnecessary risks by attracting deposits at high rates that it used to make profitable but risky loans, many of which have failed. But the Cypriot banks are also victims of the default on the Greek debt and of the deep-going recession faced by their neighbours. All of Europe is in danger of falling like dominoes: the recession weakens the banks, which can no longer lend, which accentuates the recession, and so on.

Europe plans to establish a banking union that will impose strict standards for banks with respect to crisis resolution measures. Each bank will have to write a “living will” requiring that any losses be borne by its shareholders, creditors and major depositors. The handling of the Cyprus crisis is an illustration of this. Also, the banks that need capital, creditors and deposits to comply with the constraints of Basel III will find it harder to attract them and must pay them high rates that incorporate risk premiums.

The banking union will not be a bed of roses. Bank balance sheets will need to be cleaned up before they get a collective guarantee. This will pose a problem in many countries whose banking sector needs to be reduced and restructured, with all the social and economic problems that entails (Spain, Malta, Slovenia, etc.). There will inevitably be conflicts between the ECB and the countries concerned.

Deposit insurance will long remain the responsibility of the individual country. In any event, it will be necessary in the future banking union to distinguish clearly between deposits guaranteed by public money (which must be reimbursed at limited rates and must not be placed on financial markets) and all the rest. This argues for a rapid implementation of the Liikanen report. But will there be an agreement in Europe on the future structure of the banking sector between countries whose banking systems are so very different?

The Cypriot banks lost heavily in Greece. This argues once again for some re-nationalization of banking activities. Banks run great risks when lending on large foreign markets with which they are not familiar. Allowing banks to attract deposits from non-residents by offering high interest rates or tax or regulatory concessions leads to failures. The banking union must choose between the freedom of establishment (any bank can move freely within the EU countries and conduct whatever activities it chooses) and the principle of liability (countries are responsible for their banking systems, whose size must stay in line with that of the country itself).

In the coming years, the necessary restructuring of the European banking system thus risks undermining the ability of banks to dispense credit at a time when businesses are already reluctant to invest and when countries are being forced to implement drastic austerity plans.

In sum, the principle of making the financial sector pay for its excesses is beginning to take shape in Europe. Unfortunately, the Cyprus crisis shows once again the inconsistencies of European governance: to trigger European solidarity, things had to slide to the very edge, at the risk of going right over the cliff. Furthermore, this solidarity could plunge Cyprus into misery. The lessons of the past three years do not seem to have been fully drawn by Europe’s leaders.

[1] The over 50% reduction of the face value of Greek bonds held by private agents in February 2012 already went in this direction.

The Cypri-hot case!

By Jérôme Creel

In advance of a more in-depth study of the crisis in Cyprus and its impact on the euro zone, here are a few thoughts on the draft agreement reached last Monday morning, 25 March, between the Cypriot Presidency and some of the donors.

This proposal provides for the winding up of a private bank, Laiki, and shifting of its insured deposits (under 100,000 euros) to another private bank, the Bank of Cyprus, as part of its recapitalization. Deposits in the Bank of Cyprus in excess of 100,000 euros will be frozen and converted into shares. Ultimately, the Bank of Cyprus should be able to achieve a capital ratio of 9%, complying with applicable EU banking legislation. In exchange for these provisions and for an increase in taxes on capital gains and corporate profits, the European institutions will contribute 10 billion euros to Cyprus. Bank deposits guaranteed under the rules in force in the EU will still be insured, while the increase in capital gains taxes will reduce the remuneration of deposits in Cyprus, which have been above the European average.

In one week, the negotiations between the Cypriot authorities, the IMF and Europe’s institutions have led to radically different results. For the part of the rescue plan needed for the viability of the banking system, the Cypriot President was apparently faced with a choice between a levy on all depositors, including “small savers”, and a bank failure that would entail financial losses only for shareholders, bondholders and “big savers” (those with deposits of over 100,000 euros). It thus took a week for the democratically elected representative of a Member State of the European Union to give in and uphold the interests of the many (the general interest?) over the interests of the few, a handful of bankers.

The March 25th draft agreement also included a very interesting reference to the issue of money laundering. Cypriot banks will undergo audits to better understand the origin of the funds they collect. This time it did not take a week, but rather years for members of the Eurogroup to deal formally with a basic question about the operation of the Cypriot economy. Beyond Cyprus itself, there is reason to wonder whether there isn’t funny money in the EU too.

One final thought about the International Monetary Fund, the donor partner that together with the European Central Bank and the European Commission makes up the Troika. It seems that it set many of the requirements: should we conclude that the IMF has much more bargaining power than the ECB and the European Commission, that it is the leader of this Troika? If this is so, it would raise some problems: first, the ECB and the Commission are supposed to defend the interests of Europe, which would not be the case if these two institutions were under the thumb of the IMF. Second, we should not forget that during the recapitalization of April 2009, the IMF received additional funds from the EU countries, which was a wise decision on their part if their representatives anticipated that soon they would need recourse to bailout funds, with the funds allocated to the IMF returning back to the EU in the form of loans. That said, having the IMF dictate drastic conditions for qualifying for bailout funds that have largely been contributed by from the EU itself is questionable, and would undermine the process of European integration.