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An open letter regarding Europe and the Greek Crisis

Below is an open letter from the Macroeconomic Policy Institute regarding the Greek Crisis, not just in the context of Greece but of Europe. It identifies four causes of “Greece’s fiscal catastrophe” and then draws a disturbing parallel between the deflationary measures now agreed for Greece and the similar ones adopted by Germany in the 1920s “which paved the way for the horrors that followed.” If you have thoughts, please post them here. If you wish to sign the letter, the means of doing so follows. 


Open letter to European policymakers: The Greek crisis is a European crisis and needs European solutions

For weeks the attention of the financial markets, media commentators and policymakers has been on the Greek crisis. Yet it has rumbled on. The Greek population is being asked to make painful cuts which will only depress incomes output and employment further, even as interest rates are driven up to crippling levels. Most recently its bonds have been declared ‘junk’ by rating agencies, which, the damaged credibility of such agencies notwithstanding, threatens to have disastrous knock-on effects. This is a disaster for Greeks, but it is also profoundly the wrong course for Europe as a whole, which needs to chart a European path out of the crisis.We are appalled that European policymaking has systematically lagged behind events, allowing itself to be driven by volatile market sentiments, populist politicians and a media that all too often exhibits fundamental ignorance about the issues. This has dramatically raised the costs and risks of resolving the crisis.

Greece’s fiscal catastrophe has four causes. First, there is the past fiscal weakness of the Greek state, in particular the inability to generate tax revenues, as a share of GDP, in line with its European neighbours, but also inexcusable statistical manipulation. Second,  Greece’s relative competitiveness has steadily worsened, especially within the euro area, as reflected in a sustained current account deficit as a result of above-average increases in unit labour costs and prices and a stronger economic growth dynamic. Third the economic crisis – which, given the country’s conservative banking sector was a classic external shock – has ravaged public finances, just as in other countries. And last but not least, fourth, the interest cost burden has dramatically increased, as genuine concerns about fiscal sustainability combined with speculation and misinformation to dramatically raise the rate of interest on new Greek government bonds.

Only the first of these reasons calls unambiguously for Greeks to accept the pain of fiscal austerity. All the others have a strong European dimension and call for European solutions. In particular, the loss of competitiveness by Greece (and a number of other countries, including Spain and Ireland) is the mirror image of an increase in relative competitiveness by others, notably Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. The latter countries could not have increased their net exports without the faster demand expansion in the former group, which, it is often forgotten, were also responsible for much of Europe’s economic and jobs growth in recent years, while demand and output growth in the surplus countries has been sluggish. The problem is symmetrical and the solution must be as well.

For Greece has not – as is often claimed or implied – lagged behind Germany in raising productivity: on the contrary hourly labour productivity increased more than twice as fast in Greece than Germany during the ten years of the euro since 1999. Nor do frequent claims in the media of Greek ‘laziness’ stand up to scrutiny: average annual working hours are the longest in Europe (and hundreds of hours per year longer than in Germany!). The problem has been with nominal wage and price setting.

Due to strong differences in wage setting, Greek nominal unit labour costs increased by more than 30% since the start of EMU – and the increases in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland were even higher – whereas in Germany they rose by just 8%. Monopolistic price setting is also critical, enabling firms to pass on higher wage costs or imported prices onto domestic prices. Such wage and price divergences are not sustainable within a monetary union where exchange-rate adjustments are no longer possible. But this requires an adjustment from both ends. Wages and prices in Greece and other countries need to fall in relative terms, but they must increase faster in Germany, whose aggressive wage moderation policies are deflationary, export unemployment and threaten to explode the monetary union. This is the only way to rebalance the euro area while avoiding the huge risk of a deflationary spiral.

Misunderstanding these causes, European policymakers have fiddled while Greece has burned. Monetary policy has been left entirely out of the discussion. Fiscal support offers have been too little, too late and subject to unreasonable conditions. The EU2020 Guidelines proposed by the Commission do recognize the imbalances problem, but the proposed measures are not symmetrical. As a result speculators have driven the cost of resolving the crisis higher and higher. Lending public money to Greece, at interest, is not charity. It is a recognition of the interconnections of a monetary union and in the vital interest of all Europeans. No-one benefits from Greece and other countries embarking on massive fiscal austerity, demand deflation and competitive price deflation. This is all the more so when monetary policy is up against the zero bound and the European economy as a whole still dependent on policy stimulus. Greece must not be forced into massive demand deflation: having avoided the mistakes of the Great Depression at European level it makes no sense to repeat them at national level.

On the contrary it is in Europe’s vital interests to resolve the Greek crisis on the basis of rising incomes across the continent and to put in place the needed machinery to cope with competitive and fiscal imbalances in the future. The future of the euro area as a whole is at stake. There is a serious risk of a falling Greek domino knocking over a series of other countries. Portugal and other countries now stand where Greece was a few months ago. The economic, political and social costs would be enormous. Has Europe learnt nothing from the 1920s when Germany was, in many ways, in a similar situation to Greece today? Prevented from raising exports to service its foreign debt (reparations) by mercantilist policies, Germany embarked on a disastrous course of deflation and depression which paved the way for the horrors that followed. Today as then, deficit countries cannot simply save their way out of crisis, they must have the opportunity to grow their way out. And this is also the only way to limit the damage to surplus countries, who are otherwise also destined to lose out in terms of growth, employment and financial stability.

We call for a coordinated economic policy response around the following five elements:

  • The ECB must provide as much support as possible to the fiscal consolidation and rebalancing effort. In the short run that means committing to maintaining its base rates close to zero. Keeping interest rates low is vital to help minimise refinancing costs while pushing up the rate of nominal GDP growth. It must continue to accept Greek bonds as collateral.
  • Euro area governments should commit to meeting Greece’s needs to restructure its sovereign bonds for a three-year period. The sums involved do not require the involvement of the IMF, whose participation is only justified, if at all, by political considerations.  This would immediately and drastically reduce the market interest rates to be paid on new bond issues: the rate demanded by euro area governments should be explicitly tied to the benchmark rate for German Bunds plus a penalty rate, which should be set so as to ensure the best possible chances for consolidation while avoiding future sovereign moral hazard.
  • Greece accepts enhanced supervision of its public finances and announces a longer-term fiscal consolidation package designed to have as limited negative effects on demand as possible in the short run (notably drastically reducing tax evasion), but primary fiscal surpluses in the medium run; it couples this with a time-limited freeze on wages and administered prices and policies to increase product market competition.
  • Germany, Austria and other surplus countries commit to maintain fiscal stimulus and a period of faster-than-productivity-growth wage increases; more generally, fiscal exit strategies should be coordinated within the Council to underpin area-wide economic recovery while rebalancing demand within the currency area. This requires asynchronous exit strategies. Greece and other deficit countries have to employ them earlier while the surplus countries like Germany follow later on. After the adjustment period wage policies should return to an orientation to the medium-run growth of national productivity plus the ECB’s inflation target in all countries.
  • Greece is not the only crisis country and policies are needed to prevent the crisis spreading to other vulnerable countries. The issuing of Eurobonds, possibly with a role for central bank purchases on the secondary market, should be considered to reduce financing costs. Moreover, the EU should embark on an immediate review of its various policy coordination mechanisms with a view to strengthening them and refocusing them in the direction revealed to be necessary by the crisis, namely: a symmetrical focus on surplus and deficit countries; the monitoring of private debt-savings dynamics, rather than just the public sector, and thus a focus on current account positions; incorporating wage and price setting and accordingly strengthening the role of social partners. A starting point is the proposed EU2020 Guidelines which need to be revised accordingly.

The Greek crisis is a chance to drive European integration forward to the benefit of all Europe’s citizens. But current policies, based on misperceptions of economic interlinkages and short-sighted and erroneous views on ‘national’ interests, threaten to destroy the monetary union, set back European integration and imperil its economic and political future. EMU simply cannot go on like this. We call on European policymakers to find European solutions that serve the interest of all Europe’s citizens. —————————————————————————————————————We urge you to read this open letter. If you broadly agree with its content, please manifest your support by inserting your details in the table and replying to this e-mail (openletter@etui.org).

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  1. Ludwig van den Hauwe
    May 3, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    Great analysis!

  2. David Christopher Leonard
    May 3, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    I certainly think the measures proposed represent the best way to address the Greek economic crisis but are they politically possible? The incapacity of the Greek state to capture tax revenue (massive tax avoidance) points to the profoundly compromised character of the state. This and other weaknesses in the Greek polity have historical roots and will not be easily addressed. Italy has much of the same problem – an obviously has a political culture that renders rooting out corruption, clientelism, and systematic tax avoidance highly unlikely (Spain and Portugal are somewhat different).
    But France and especially Germany bear a substantial burden they have resolutely refused to recognize – much less act to address

  3. May 3, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    Here is the truth about the measures. The corrupted politicians cut down the helpless elderly pension to levels of starving to death. The rich and the powerfull stay intact.

  4. don gould
    May 12, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    This is what happens when banks get too big and call the shots all banks suckle at the tit of there government ,us, are given the right to create money buy there government ,us, charge the government,us, usery interest rates to the point that all of our governments ,us, pay most of our taxes to bank interest rate so the banks will feed at the goverment tit forever at the same time like the class bully they want the eat our lunch breakfast and dinner too example credit card rates of 19% on most people and the ones who thing there smart pay 9% remember they make it out of thin air .That is a fact let us control our government let the government control money and let the banks go back to being a service industry without the investment banking powers to buy the real economy ,US.I thing they call it fascism when they finally take over when they do can someone hide this statement for me

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