Misplaced Optimism and Fears on Greece

November 28, 2014

Nicholas Gage uses a NYT column to tell us that Greece is on the path to recovery and that the main risk to its prosperity is the rise of the left-wing political party Syriza. Both claims are dubious.

In terms of the recovery, Gage points to the country’s strong third quarter growth, increased tourism, an improved budget situation and a decline in the unemployment rate. While the lower deficits would be good news, if the European Union was prepared to allow Greece to have a substantial stimulus, this does not seem likely anywhere in the foreseeable future. Therefore it is simply a bookkeeping entry from the standpoint of the economy. The third quarter growth, spurred in part by tourism, is a positive, but quarterly data are erratic so it will be necessary to see several more quarters before the trend is clear.

Gage touts the drop in the unemployment rate to 25.9 percent from 28.0 percent last year. However, most of this drop is due to people leaving the labor force. The employment rate, the percentage of people employed, is up by just 0.6 percentage points from its low. It is still down by 12.2 percentage points from its peak in 2008. This would be equivalent to 30 million people losing employment in the United States.

According to the most recent projections from the I.M.F, even in 2019 (the last year in the projection period) Greece’s GDP will still be almost 10 percent less than its 2007 level. This is far worse than the Great Depression in the United States. And, the I.M.F.’s projections for Greece have consistently proven to be overly optimistic.

By contrast, Gage warns of the bad scenario for Greece’s future:

“While the €23 billion shortfall in that year was covered by the E.C.B., today a much weaker eurozone would hardly be in a position to transfer over €100 billion to Greece if another huge run were to occur.

“In this scenario, the vacuum of currency would bring Greece to technical bankruptcy. The hard-won gains of the past two years would vanish. Access to loans would disappear. The faltering economy would come to a standstill, and the only recourse for Greece would be to return to the drachma, a disastrous move for a country that imports much of the goods it consumes.”

Almost every part of this is wrong. First, the European Central Bank (ECB) has no shortage of euros. It can make as many of them it wants. (Is Gage worried about inflation?) If a flight of capital means that Greece needs 100 billion euros, the ECB would have no problem providing them.

Gage is also wrong with the bad story about Greece leaving the euro. The drop in the value of its currency would instantly make its goods and services more competitive in the euro zone and elsewhere. The country already has a current account surplus. If Greece renegotiated its debts and increased its exports with a lower valued currency, it should have no problem at all paying for its imports.

The basic facts of the situation show that any plausible stay the course route for Greece implies a level of pain that exceeds that experienced by the U.S. in the Great Depression long into the future. The alternative path of leaving the euro holds out the possibility of a much quicker return to normal growth and potential GDP.

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