Greek politics and poisonous statistics – an on-going saga

Why the Troika and the EU member states find it so difficult to trust Greece

The word “trust” has been mentioned time and again in reports on the tortuous negotiations on Greece. One reason is the persistent deceit in reporting on debt and deficit statistics, including lying about an off market swap with Goldman Sachs: not a one-off deceit but a political interference through concerted action among several public institutions for more then ten years.

As late as in the July 12 Euro Summit statement “safeguarding of the full legal independence of ELSTAT” was stated as a required measure. Worryingly, Andreas Georgiou president of ELSTAT from 2010, the man who set the statistics straight, and some of his staff, have been hounded by political forces, also Syriza. Further, a Greek parliamentary investigation aims at showing that foreigners are to blame for the odious debt, which should not be paid while there is no effort to clarify a decade of falsifying statistics.

In Iceland there were also voices blaming its collapse on foreigners but the report of the Special Investigation Committee silenced these voices. – As long as powerful parts of the Greek political class are unwilling to admit to past failures it might prove difficult to solve its results: the excessive debt and deficit.

“This is all the fault of foreigners!” In Iceland, this was a common first reaction among some politicians and political forces following the collapse of the three largest Icelandic banks in October 2008. Allegedly, foreign powers were jealous or even scared of the success of the Icelandic banks abroad or aimed at taking over Icelandic energy sources. In April 2010 the publication of a report by the Special Investigation Committee, SIC, effectively silenced these voices. It documented that the causes were domestic: failed policies, lax financial supervision, fawning faith in the fast-growing banking system and thoroughly reckless, and at times criminal, banking.

As the crisis struck, Iceland’s public debt was about 30% of GDP and budget surplus. Though reluctant to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund, IMF, the Icelandic government did so in the weeks following the collapse. An IMF crisis loan of $2.1bn eased the adjustment from boom to bust. Already by the summer of 2011 Iceland was back to growth and by August 2011 it completed the IMF programme, executed by a left government in power from early 2009 until spring 2013. Good implementation and Iceland’s ownership of the programme explains the success. For Ireland it was the same: it entered the crisis with strong public finances and ended a harsh Troika programme late 2013; its growth in 2014 was 4.8%.

For Greece it was a different story: high budget deficit and high public debt were chronic. From 1995 to 2014 it had an average budget deficit of -7%. Already in 1996, government debt was above 100% of GDP, hovering there until the debt started climbing worryingly in the period 2008 to 2009 – far from the prescribed Maastricht euro criteria of budget deficit not exceeding 3% and public debt no higher than 60% of GDP. Both Greek figures had however one striking exception: they dived miraculously low, below their less glorious averages in time for joining the euro. Yet, only the deficit number ever went below the required Maastricht criteria, which enabled Greece to join the euro in 2001.

Greece had an extra problem not found in Iceland, Ireland or any other crisis-hit EEA countries: in addition to dismal public finances for decades there is the even more horrifying saga of deliberate hiding and falsifying economic realities by misreporting Excessive Deficit Procedure, EDP and hide debt and deficit with off market swaps.*

Continue reading

Ireland and Greece, again

Hans-Werner Sinn has an op-ed in Saturday’s New York Times calling (again) for a Greek exit from the Euro, a recommendation on which he agrees, as he notes, with Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. Part of his argument is that is that an official lending “bailout” program within the Euro won’t work because it will impede the necessary decline in local prices to make Greece competitive again within the single currency. His evidence that not getting a bailout improves competitiveness is … Ireland:

Take the case of Ireland. Like Greece, Ireland became too expensive, as interest rates fell sharply during the introduction of the euro. When the bubble burst, in late 2006, no fiscal rescue was available. The Irish tightened their belts and underwent a drastic internal devaluation by cutting wages, which in turn led to lower prices for Irish goods both in absolute and relative terms. This made the Irish economy competitive again.

But, you might object, I have a clear memory of Ireland getting a Troika bailout? Indeed –

Granted, Ireland also received fiscal aid. But that came much later, toward the end of 2010, and when it came, the internal devaluation stopped almost immediately. Twelve of the 13 percentage points of the Irish decline in relative product prices came before that date.

This interpretation of Ireland plays an important role in Sinn’s recommendation for Greece: it showed that it’s possible to manage a real devaluation without a bailout, but Greece began too late and had too far to go for this route to be feasible, hence it should leave the Euro.

But is this valid?

Continue reading

IMF: Eastern Mediterranean country with unfair debt service requirement

From new IMF report on a certain country –

The case for fiscal adjustment is also grounded in fairness. Without it and with ever more debt, interest payments will soar to some 12 percent of GDP, or about 40 percent of total spending, crowding out essential social programs and infrastructure projects and largely benefitting public debt holders at the expense of the less-privileged. Thus lack of fiscal adjustment is also costly and inequitable.

That country where debt service will ever more crowd out social spending and be increasingly unfair: Lebanon.


Remember Roland Pofalla? Sure ya do. The minister in charge of Angela Merkel’s private office, and therefore Germany’s intelligence services, who vehemently denied anyone had been spied upon when the Snowden leaks hit. Pofalla denied everything, on the basis that the Americans had told him so. When it became clear from the documents that huge amounts of mobile network data were available in XKEYSCORE from a German source, he said it came from the German army’s field ELINT team in Afghanistan.

At every turn he denied everything, and it may have been him who invented the talking point that European intelligence services picked things out like a harpoon, rather than scooping everything up like a trawler, like the horrible Americans. This would later be used repeatedly to justify French surveillance legislation and was presumably coordinated with them. Of course, you can’t “pick out” items of signals intelligence without first scooping them up and examining them to see if they’re the ones you want to “pick out”.

Now it turns out they were listening to Pofalla’s mobile phone, on the number he still uses today.

Water under the bridge

From that Eurogroup Greece prior actions draft still under discussion in the middle of the night in Brussels –

There are serious concerns regarding the sustainability of Greek debt. This is due to the easing of policies during the last twelve months, which resulted in the recent deterioration in the domestic macroeconomic and financial environment.

It’s a truly remarkable statement that concerns about the sustainability of Greek debt only arose in the last year, since the 2010 IMF bailout — an event that everyone, including the IMF, seems to have forgotten — was only rammed through by ignoring the normal IMF debt sustainability criterion.

UPDATE: The identical statement is in the final draft.


What Icelandic business practices can (possibly) tell us about China

Many controlling shareholders in China have pledged shares as collaterals for bank loans – this was a common practice in Iceland up to the October 2008 banking collapse. Now, this practice seems to be causing suspensions of trading in shares in China. If this is indeed a widespread Chinese practice the well-studied effects in Iceland provide a chilling lesson: when the steady rise of Icelandic share prices, both in banks and other companies stopped and prices fell this practice turned into a major calamity for the banks and companies involved. In hindsight, it was a sign of an incestuous and dysfunctional business environment. The Icelandic experience was well covered in the 2010 report by the Icelandic Special Investigation Committee, SIC, and provides food for thought for other countries where these practices surface.

One of the most stunning and shocking findings of the Icelandic SIC report was the widespread use of shares as collaterals for loans in all Icelandic banks, small and large but most notably the three largest ones – Kaupthing, Landsbanki and Glitnir.

It is necessary to distinguish between two types of lending against shares as practiced in Iceland: one is a bank funding purchase of its own shares, with only the shares as collaterals. The other type is taking other shares as collaterals.

These loans with shares as collaterals were mainly offered to the banks’ largest shareholders – in the big banks these were the main Icelandic business leaders – their partners and bank managers. In the smaller banks local business magnates who in many cases were partners to those Icelandic businessmen who operated abroad, as well as in Iceland. Thus, this practice defined a two tier banking system: with services like these to a small group of clients – that I have called the “favoured clients” – and then normal services for anyone else.

As a general banking model it would not make sense – the risk is far too great. But this lending mechanism and the ensuing stratospheric risks seem to have been entirely unobserved by not only the regulators in Iceland but also abroad where the Icelandic banks operated.

The SIC report, published 10 April 2010, explained in depth the effects of shares as collaterals: when share prices fell the banks could not make margin calls without aggravating the situation further. Consequently the banks lost their independent standing vis à vis their largest shareholders and clients – effectively, the banks and the business elite were tied to the same mast on the same ship and all would sink together in case the ship ran aground (as then happened).

Being familiar with the Icelandic pre-collapse situation it was with great interest that I read an article in the FT,* explaining what might be the reason behind the suspended trading in shares of almost 1500 Shanghai- and Shenzen-listed companies, mostly on the ChiNext stock exchange:

“Some analysts believe the suspensions are instead related to one of the scariest “known unknowns” surrounding the market meltdown — just how many controlling shareholders have pledged their shares as collateral for bank loans.”

If this is indeed the case the Icelandic experience indicates a truly scary outlook and dysfunctional Chinese banking. There might be further troubles ahead.

Continue reading

Two year escape hatch

IMF Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard in a new blog post defending the 2010 Greece program against various criticisms, including the absence of debt restructuring –

Moreover, private creditors were not off the hook, and, in 2012, debt was substantially reduced: The 2012 private sector involvement (PSI) operation led to a haircut of more than 50% on about €200 billion of privately held debt, so leading to a decrease in debt of over €100 billion (to be concrete, a reduction of debt of 10,000 euros per Greek citizen). And the shift from private to official creditors came with much better terms, namely below market rates and long maturities.

Below the fold, a few relevant sentences from the IMF’s own ex-post evaluation of the 2010 Greece program, issued in 2013. Bottom line: what could be achieved in 2012 was severely constrained by what was (not) done in 2010, and the 2012 restructuring destroyed a core assumption of the 2010 program. In particular, when debt restructuring [private sector involvement (PSI)] was done, the hit on the remaining private sector creditors, including Greek banks, had to be larger because other private creditors were gone and official creditors that had taken on their debt, including the ECB, were off the table in the restructuring. It was then much harder for Greece to return to the market as the 2010 program had assumed, and the banks needed a lot more money to recapitalize.

Continue reading

When extreme circumstances warrant setting up a lender of last resort within a larger currency union

From address by Professor Cormac O’Gráda, School of Economics, University College Dublin, to the Central Bank of Ireland Whitaker Lecture, 29 June 2011. The context is the Irish Free State’s 1 for 1 currency peg with the pound sterling, a continuation of the pre-1922 UK pound for Ireland –

The Emergency (World War II) also produced a defining moment in Irish banking history. Until then, Ireland’s lack of a central bank had not worried its joint-stock banks; on the contrary, they did not relish the idea. For over a century the Bank of Ireland had played the role of quasi-central bank, while looking on the Bank of England as its friend in need. Just a few days before the outbreak of war a delegation from College Green (Bank of Ireland HQ) traveled to London for reassurance about the availability of foreign exchange and the free repatriation of Irish bank assets held in London. In what must have been a difficult moment for the Irish bankers, the Governor of the Bank of England Montague Norman told them that:

notwithstanding the long and intimate relations between the two institutions he was not prepared to commit the Bank of England by promising to come to the assistance of the Bank of Ireland in an emergency of the nature under discussion. As an ordinary banking transaction there would be no question whatever about making an advance to the Bank, but in an emergency situation there was an important principal (sic) involved. The Bank of England looked upon Eire as a Dominion… Mr. Norman stressed the view that the Bank ‘whose centre of gravity was in Eire’ should look to their own Treasury or the Currency Commission to help them over difficult periods. Sir John [Keane, Deputy Governor of the Bank of Ireland] pointed out that the position in Eire did not admit of a solution in that way, as the [Irish] Treasury came to the Bank when it was short of funds, and the [Irish] Currency Commission was not a lender of the last resort. Mr. Norman then urged that as Eire was a separate political entity it should have a Central Bank of its own.

And so it took the Emergency and Montagu Norman to persuade the Bank of Ireland to switch its loyalty fully to the new state, and for the other joint stock banks to appreciate the need for an Irish central bank. The Central Bank Act followed in 1942.

The sterling currency union nonetheless survived up until Ireland joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System in 1979.

Low payoff from structural reforms in Greece?

The IMF has released a preliminary debt sustainability analysis for Greece — undertaken before this week’s cash crisis but after its adjustments to the numbers to take account of the deterioration in the relationship between Greece and its creditors since January. The document can be read cynically as the IMF using Syriza as an excuse to dump all the unrealistic assumptions in their earlier calculations, but it’s still helpful in spelling out those assumptions — which were there for everyone to see. Arguably the most incredible scenario was for growth (see Box 2):

What would real GDP growth look like if  total factor productivity (TFP) growth were to remain at the historical average rates since Greece joined the EU? Given the shrinking working-age population (as projected by Eurostat) and maintaining investment at its projected ratio of 19 percent of GDP from 2019 onwards (up from 11 percent currently), real GDP growth would be expected to average –0.6 percent per year in steady state. If labor force participation increased to the highest in the euro area, unemployment fell to German levels, and TFP growth reached the average in the euro area since 1980, real GDP growth would average 0.8 percent of GDP. Only if TFP growth were to reach Irish levels, that is, the best performer in the euro area, would real GDP growth average about 2 percent in steady state. 

That last assumption — 2 percent long-term growth — was the one that was actually in the program until now! These are of course results from an economic model that could be right or wrong. But that’s part of the political challenge of these lending programs: undertake massive effort on “reforms” and you might, if everything else goes well, get a not-especially-exciting growth rate. And the voters on Sunday don’t even know which set of “reforms” they are voting on, let alone their long-term consequences.

UPDATE: Note that the debt sustainability analysis is on the ballot on Sunday!