The Joy Of Negotiating

20/02/2015 at 4:47 pm

While they may not yet be making headlines across the broader media as in days gone by, the ongoing negotiations between Greece and her creditors are the subject of the most widely-read article on Bloomberg today. Entitled German-Led Bloc Willing To Let Greece Leave Euro, the piece has the following money quote from Edward Scicluna, finance minister of Malta:

Germany, the Netherlands and others will be hard and they will insist that Greece repays back the solidarity shown by the member states by respecting the conditions … They’ve now reached a point where they will tell Greece ‘if you really want to leave, leave.’

It is now nearly five years since the downgrade of Greek debt caused worldwide panic over the condition of Europe’s sovereign balance sheets, and for much of that time there have been some who have advocated euro withdrawal and default as the solution to the country’s problems. Somewhere near the zenith of this view’s popularity readers may remember that it was Titanically flawed:

First of all, the currency … There would be rapid depreciation – indeed, the possibility that [it] could cease to be transferable internationally. (The Icelandic krone threatened this at the nadir of the recent crisis with the result that the supply of imported food was jeopardized.) Even if the drachma were tradeable, immediate, rapid inflation would occur. At the same time, bank deposits and other assets would have to be re-denominated, decimating the wealth of the nation overnight. These twin effects would demolish household and business consumption and consign the country to a further period of sharp economic contraction.

All well and good, say the defaultists. But at least Greece would be free of her debt!

Yes, and no. Greece is still running a budget deficit and in the catastrophe scenario this would get worse. So unless the Greeks wanted total state shutdown, they would still have to borrow money. Who would be the lenders? The EU; the IMF: exactly the same people who are lending to them at the moment. The conditions imposed by those lenders – who would still have effective control of the country’s economy until their loans were repaid – would be at least as punitive as the conditions they’re imposing now. In other words, there would be at least as much austerity to contend with, and possibly more.

One key feature of the economic landscape has changed since then, however: Greece has been running a primary budget surplus since the middle of 2013. This means that, ignoring debt interest, the government is raising more in tax than it spends. The last available data from the Bank of Greece (for November) has this primary surplus running at 2% of GDP. There are suspicions that the position has deteriorated since, but the key point is that – in theory – the Greek government could walk away from its debt and let its creditors go hang as it would no longer need to borrow money.

Bearing in mind the point about the currency, banking system and the rest, this surplus would likely not last very long in the event of a “Grexit”, so it isn’t that strong a negotiating point. It does, however, make such a decision appear less obviously stupid. This might well reduce the extent to which political will is bent to economic fear. The Greek situation today is therefore arguably more volatile than it was in 2011.

This is certainly not how it seems. The market reaction to Syriza’s election and Greece’s return to the repetitive circus of down-to-the-wire debt talks every few months has been pretty muted. The country’s ten year debt is priced at over 60 cents on the dollar, below the 80 cent level reached before last autumn but nowhere near reflective of the 74% loss incurred by bondholders in the 2012 restructuring. The Athens Stock Exchange index has fallen 24% over the past six months, but that is pretty tame compared to the 69% fall it suffered over calendar 2010 and ’11 – and it is actually some 3% up on the year to date.

The overall market view, then, seems to be either that the current talks are nothing to worry about, or that Grexit doesn’t matter very much. And besides, the Euro Stoxx 50 is up 11% since the end of 2014, last week’s GDP data for the eurozone was a little ahead of expectations, today’s stronger-than-forecast PMI numbers suggested the outlook here remains bright, and while it has bounced a bit recently the oil price remains about 45% lower than where it spent the first half of 2014. (If you add up the individual members you find that the eurozone, not the US or China, is the world’s biggest oil importer by some distance.)

It appears highly unlikely that another major debt restructuring is on the cards for Greece (as opposed to changes to its existing terms). On this basis the relatively sanguine market view looks right. Prime Minister Tsipras could of course decide to give the world a shock, but it remains clear on balance that this wouldn’t do his country much good.

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