By Yeva Nersisyan
It is useful to recall the financial balance identity for analyzing what policy options Greece has (see here). The balance of the private sector (surplus/deficit) equals the balance of the government (deficit/surplus) plus the current account balance (surplus/deficit). In plain English this means that private sector savings (surplus) is financed by government deficit (an injection into private incomes and hence saving) and by the current account surplus (net exports are an injection into nominal income and hence saving). By entering the monetary union the euronations have voluntarily agreed to the debt and deficit constraints imposed by the Maastricht treaty. So what are the policy options for these countries under these self-imposed constraints? We know that the private sector cannot be perpetually in deficit; in fact the normal situation is for the private sector to try to save some of its income. The current account balance of Greece was -9.98% in 2009. If Greece only had a budget deficit of 3% (the Maastricht limit) then its private sector would need to run a deficit of 6.98%. If we want the Greeks to have a positive saving (>0) what needs to be true about the government deficit? Simple math will show that it has to be greater than 9.98% of GDP. So to balance its budget, either the private sector needs to go in debt (making bankers richer) or Greece needs to balance its current account and even try to achieve a small surplus which is neither desirable nor achievable.
But what happens when all euronations try to export their way out of their economic problems? Basically, they will have to revert to mercantilist-type beggar-thy-neighbor policies where each country tries to solve its growth and unemployment problems by exporting them to their trading partners. Germany has already taken this route which has allowed it to be a “role model” for “fiscal responsibility” and given it the “right” to criticize other countries which don’t follow it. But all the countries cannot be net exporters; some have to be net importers. Germany can only be a net exporter to Euroland if some other euro nations are willing to be on the other end of the transaction. France, Italy, Belgium and Spain are among the 11 largest export partners of Germany with each of these countries having a net deficit with it. It is the government or private deficit in these countries that’s financing Germany’s exports.
So what options do net importer countries such as Greece or Spain have to maintain their aggregate demand at a reasonable level? If sovereign indebtedness is not acceptable, the only thing left is private sector indebtedness which will eventually lead to a financial collapse as we have witnessed in the US, UK and elsewhere. And some countries such as Spain don’t even have that option as their private sector is already highly indebted.
To summarize, the problem is not Greece’s profligate spending, but rather the design of the European monetary system. It has been specifically created to divorce the monetary and fiscal authorities to make the monetary authority super independent from “political pressures”. It has tied the hands of governments restricting them in using their fiscal capacity to employ their labor resources and has forced the countries into sluggish growth, high unemployment rates, stagnating wages, cuts in social services, etc. They have been able to achieve low inflation rates though. What a fair trade-off! Moreover, as countries on the periphery approach the Maastricht debt limits, the markets start betting against the country’s debt forcing it to pay higher interest rates. And of course no mess is complete without the rating agencies which are “diligently” monitoring the debt and deficit situations threatening to cut countries’ ratings further exacerbating the problem.
If Germany wants to increase its retirement age and cut social benefits it should be up to the German public to accept it or protest against it. But foreigners shouldn’t be allowed to dictate this to Greece and other nations. If they are doing that, and successfully so, it means that something is wrong with the way the system is set up. It is time for Greece and other nations in the outskirts of Europe to push for a change in the institutional structure which is obviously dysfunctional.