Eds. Note: Reports in the international media suggest that Greece is about to default on its debt to the International Monetary Fund. This is a complex matter, one that could potentially have an impact on economies worldwide. This week San Diego Free Press is presenting analyses of this crisis by Frank Thomas and John Lawrence.
By John Lawrence
How to figure out the ongoing crisis that is Greece? What exactly is going on there? As per usual it’s another chapter in the strange saga that involves Wall Street’s stranglehold over the world economy.
What happened to Greece is similar to what happened to American mortgage holders after they were encouraged to go in over their collective heads borrowing more money than they could reasonably expect to be in a position to pay back. Greece did the same.
Will Greece default soon? Will they stay in the Eurozone or be ejected out of it? These questions have been hanging in the air for what seems like an interminably long time.
Is Greece having a liquidity crisis or an insolvency crisis? That is the question. If the former, a short term loan should be able to get them over the hump. If the latter no loans or bailouts of any kind will ever solve their problem.
It all started when Goldman Sachs assisted Greece in lying their way into the Eurozone in the first place. They really didn’t qualify for admission but Goldman hid that small detail under a heap of trompe l’oeil, sleight of hand and financial shananigans that got past the critical eyes of the European ministers. They manufactured a highly questionable derivative scheme involving a currency swap that used artificially high exchange rates to conceal Greek debt.
Goldman then turned around and hedged its bets by shorting Greek debt just as they had done with the mortgage crisis in the US. Predictably, these derivative bets went very wrong for the less sophisticated of the two players, namely, Greece. A 2.8 billion loan to Greece in 2001 became a 5.1 billion debt by 2005. In the US mortgage fiasco they packaged subprime loans in portfolios, after having loaned money to people with questionable ability to pay back the loans, and then bet that they would default. Goldman made tons of money that way.
Now this operation on the part of Goldman should come as no surprise to those familiar with Goldman’s shenanigans leading up to the debt crisis of 2008 in which they packaged a bunch of mortgages that were designed to fail into collateralized debt obligations, sold them off to unsuspecting investors and then turned around and placed bets against them. Such a deal was the Abacus fund designed by John Paulson who made billions on it. The American government then bailed out the too big to fail Wall Street banks while leaving the underwater mortgagees to dangle from a fiscal rope.
They did the same thing with Greece. They loaned Greece big bucks for its 2004 Olympic Games. Greece also borrowed a lot of money for its military. In retrospect it was foolish of Greece to borrow all this money. It never got a return on its investment from the Olympic games which it thought would encourage tourism. The Olympic site essentially became a heap of trash and rubble.
While Greeks Suffer, Big Banks Are Made Whole
With Greece owing tons of money to Wall Street, the European Central Bank (ECB) stepped in with loans ostensibly to the suffering Greek people but not really. Instead the borrowed money went straight to Wall Street to pay off Greek debts to them. The debt never really went away. Instead it was converted to debt owed to the ECB. Private debt was converted to public debt with the Greek people left hanging just as American mortgagees were.
Mario Draghi, President of the ECB, is a former employee of Goldman Sachs. So he represents Wall Street interests. It’s in Wall Street’s interests that austerity be imposed on Greece and that Greece be forced to sell off public assets to private investors at fire sale prices. Draghi was vice chairman and managing director of Goldman Sachs International from 2002 to 2005 so he is a natural to protect Wall Street interests, not the interests of the Greek people.
Just as a poor person who cannot pay his debts is forced to sell off his assets at fire sale prices, Greece has been forced into what is called a debt deflation spiral. Greek assets and bank collateral get deflated meaning they decrease in value making it even more onerous to make debt payments or borrow new money. Interest rates for Greece go up because the deflation of assets makes their situation even more precarious. Finally, the poor person having sold off all his assets hits the road and becomes homeless. This is also the prospect for Greece.
There is one ray of hope for Greece, however. It’s primary balance – meaning its financial situation before debt and interest payments are taken into account – has become positive in the last couple of years. The Greek government is actually taking in more in revenues than it’s paying out in expenses which means it is no longer in recession. There is positive GDP growth. That means that if Greece repudiated or defaulted on all its debts, it would actually be in the black. When debt payments are taken into account, however, the situation is hopeless: Greece is insolvent.
Since the ECB is not designed to do fiscal policy ala John Maynard Keynes, who believed in deficit financing to prime the pump of a down and out economy as ostensibly happened during the Great Depression when the US government borrowed money and spent it into the economy in order to get it moving again, Greece is left in the position that a) it can’t borrow any more money at reasonable interest rates and b) it can’t print money and spend its way out of debt. It is in the position of the average household which must balance its budget and pay its bills. If it can’t pay its bills, its creditors will demand that its assets be sold.
The question is, if Greek debt were nullified by default, would Greece be in a position to have a functioning economy in which government revenues would be sufficient for it to pay its bills? Evidently, the answer is yes because Greece has a positive primary balance. In that case Greece would not be insolvent. But when Greek debt is taken into account without it being written down by the ECB which is highly unlikely, Greece cannot pay its bills and is, therefore, insolvent.
Greek taxpayers have been notorious for not paying taxes. The ECB will not and should not let Greece become a money pit for the rest of the Eurozone countries. Having no central bank of its own and the inability to just print money like the US does, Greece is stuck between a rock and a hard place. For sure it needs to start collecting taxes especially from the rich who should be prevented from taking their money out of the country and putting it in secret Swiss bank accounts like rich Americans do.
The anti-austerity Syriza Party, that took control of Greece recently, has not been able to convince the ECB to cut Greece a break by writing down its debt to a level that the Greek government could manage. The ECB is holding most of the cards. Therefore, Syriza will not get any further than its predecessors did with the ECB. The EU, however, must consider the implications of a Greek default either within the Eurozone or one in which they leave the Eurozone completely and perhaps become aligned with Russia, something that the US would not be too happy about either.
The ECB has been reluctant to print money as the US Fed does except to bail out Wall Street. Controlled basically by Germany which underwent hyperinflation in the 1920s, the ECB is reluctant to risk that happening again. So they are on the horns of a dilemma. From Greece’s point of view, it might make more sense to default on its loans, exit the Eurozone and start over with structural reforms it imposes on itself. It could obtain liquidity financing elsewhere like Russia or China. But it wouldn’t have the heavy foot of the ECB standing over it and almost guaranteeing that Greece will become a perpetual debtor.
Hit The Road Jack
The noose around Greece’s neck is this: the ECB will not accept Greek bonds as collateral for the central bank liquidity all banks need until the new Syriza government accepts the very stringent austerity program imposed by the troika (the EU Commission, ECB and IMF). That means selling off public assets (including ports, airports, electric and petroleum companies), slashing salaries and pensions, drastically increasing taxes and dismantling social services, while creating special funds to save the banking system.
Just as the person who loses his job and cannot make his mortgage payment must hit the road, the Greek people through no fault of their own are being told to hit the road. Many young Greeks are doing just that and emigrating.
This could all have been avoided if Greece had a public central bank not beholden to Wall Street or the ECB for money. A public bank can create its own money and spend it into the economy thereby avoiding paying interest to Wall Street or the ECB. This gets people back to work and gets around the predicament of having to borrow money to get the economy running again as Keynesian economics would necessitate.
Greece doesn’t have the luxury of Keynesian pump priming.
Germany’s Bild newspaper claims that Athens is planning a special tax on the country’s 500 richest families.Bild says the measure is included on the Greek finance ministry’s list of reforms, which also includes a luxury tax on items such as expensive cars and trips to Greek islands, and higher taxes on workers earning over €30,000 per year.
This is a step in the right direction no doubt. It’s a conundrum facing the US as well: how to tax the wealthy in order to help out the poor and middle class. Syriza probably would not mind forcing austerity on the rich. It just doesn’t want to balance its budget on the backs of the poor by cutting their pensions and the minimum wage any more than they’ve been cut already.
The Financial Times reported on May 6 that Greece will rehire 13,000 civil servants whose jobs were cut in an overhaul of the public administration agreed with bailout lenders. Clearly,
will not be bullied by the Troika. Hopefully, Greece will get its house in order by balancing its budget on the backs of the rich not on those of the poor.
There is additional possible cooperation between Russia and Greece and even the possibility of Russia providing financial assistance. And where there’s financial assistance, military association would not be far behind. Military cooperation would not only be a thorn in the side of the EU but one also in the side of the US which has only one military base in the Greek island of Crete. Financial and military cooperation go hand in hand as we have recently seen with the Obama championed free trade deal know as the TPP. It’s as much about reducing China’s influence in the Asian sphere as it is about economic cooperation.
This is from Business Insider:
In fact, the new Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras even said in early February: “Greece and Cyprus can become a bridge of peace and cooperation between the EU and Russia.”
So this part of the world could soon become very interesting — and a huge pain for Europe.
The EU has to consider the implications to a Greek default which might not only be a harbinger of future defaults for other weak EU states such as Spain and Portugal, but might increase Russia’s influence in countries surrounding the Eurozone which are becoming increasingly friendly with Russia. Could China be far behind as well in offering financial help?