Friday, 26 March 2010

All Greek to me...

So there is a solution to what some people have called a "Greek Tragedy" after all. In true Euro-fashion, it's a bit of a fudge -- IMF involvement in the way the Germans wanted, but some Euro-bailout, too, with a role for the ECB and EU Commission. Loans are to be at market rates, or so one reads. I wonder what to make of all this. The origins of the Greek problem are clearly not a sudden speculative attack or disequlibrium in bond markets. If you lie, steal, and cheat long enough, you get caught. Try to lie about your FICA score (for Americans) or Schufa history (for Germans) for about 10 years, and NOT see a change in your interest rates after lenders catch up with what you have been doing. So a big package via the IMF that says "boooh" to some nasty speculators is not going to do the same trick that worked so well when Brazil was in trouble in the early 2000s.

Fiscal austerity will now be reinforced by the IMF. In an earlier post, I raised some questions if that is going to work -- it's a bit like root-canal work without anaesthesia. Everybody else is trying to spend more, in a bid to ward off depression. If budget cuts are too big, you get more recession. Today brought the news that Ireland's GDP fell even more in Q4 than in Q3, which puts it on a very different trajectory from everybody else. This tells you that very severe budget cuts can backfire, as Chancellor Brüning of the late Weimar Republic could also tell you. Given the size of the adjustment needed in Greece, I doubt that public finances can be cut back to health.

So, just before we all despair, four German economists writing in the FT come up with a real solution (indirectly). They remind us that the German constitutional court put a lot of emphasis on the no-bailout clause in the Stability Pact; its last ruling said that, if violated, Germany would have to leave the Euro. Should aid to Greece really go ahead, I expect someone to sue the German government. Sure, German lawyers and judges sometimes find ways of bending the law if it suits those in power (just try watching Roland Freisler in action, or reading "Der Führer schützt das Recht", a treatise by the brilliant Carl Schmitt on why Hitler's massacre of the Nazi Party's left wing was perfectly legal). Today's bunch will of course do nothing so outrageous (and I am not trying to say that declaring "too bad" and ignoring earlier EMU rulings would be comparable to Schmitts and Freisler's transgressions. I am just trying to point out that creative lawyers and judges can justify anything -- they did award Freisler's widow a bigger pension after she sued, because he would have had a brilliant career in West Germany had he not been killed by a bomb in 1945). So there is a non-zero chance, given its earlier rulings, that the Constitutional Court would actually oblige the government to either stop support to Greece, or get out of the Euro. If you take a deep breath for a minute, and dispassionately think about the consequences, this may be actually good solution for everyone (except, perhaps, the ECB bankers who would presumably have to move away from Frankfurt). The new Deutschmark would probably revalue by a lot. The soft-currency countries who now dominate EMU would get their beloved pesetas, francs, and escudos back, but with a common design on the pieces of paper. Policy could be as loose as Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, France, and Cyprus like; Germany could engage in its preferred policy of reducing unit labor costs, and running big current account surpluses. Every time they get too big, the Euro would devalue against the DM, the way the lira et al. used to. Everyone is happier. Probably, countries like Holland and Austria would shadow the new DM, as they did before EMU. Now, to be realistic ... if history teaches you something, it's that countries will stick to a silly monetary standard for way too long, especially if it's seen as the ultimately proof of adulthood in terms of currency. Just think of how long it took countries to abandon the gold standard in the 1930s... and as a beautiful paper by Sachs and Eichengreen showed many moons ago, you can explain most of the variation of when countries exited the Great Depression by when they abandoned gold.

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