Sometime in the next few weeks we’re going to find out if Greece can afford to stay in the euro. We’re also going to find out if Spain and Italy can afford to leave the euro. Access to credit markets is the key issue. The stigma of default will lock a country out of capital markets. If you don’t have a plan to replace your currency and then devalue it, you’re doomed. We’ll return to this subject at the end of today’s Markets and Money.
But first, the crisis in Greece didn’t come to a head over night but it can’t be far away. Rival political parties have been unable to form a government. New elections are scheduled for the second week in June. The financial has definitely become political. The people have run out of patience with unsound money and the world built on it.
All that said, the Greeks managed to make a €430 million payment to hold-out creditors last night. Nearly 97% of Greek creditors agreed to the restructuring of the country’s debt in March. That wiped off over €100 billion in Greek debt and resulted in 70% losses for some of the bondholders who accepted the deal. Not all of them did.
Yesterday, the bondholders who didn’t accept the deal got paid in full. There is still about €6 billion worth of debt owed to creditors who refused to participate in the restructuring. You can imagine that the Greek decision to pay the holdouts would anger the creditors who agreed to the deal. They look like schmucks now. Schmucks.
But in the current scheme of things, €430 million is chump change. The real issue is whether the Greeks are going to default on €150 billion worth of government debt. If those bonds are owned by foreign creditors – let’s call them other European banks – then the Greek crisis becomes a European crisis. We’ll come back to this issue of ‘containment’ shortly.
For the Greek people, the most alarming aspect of what’s going on is that their life savings are at serious risk of a massive, overnight, non-voluntary devaluation. There are a lot of words for the magical process of turning one thing into something else: alchemy, transmutation, and transubstantiation come to mind. But to the Greeks it’s going to look a lot like highway robbery.
You’ll go to bed one night with your life savings denominated in euros. You’ll wake up the next day with them denominated in drachma. And your euro savings will be automatically converted to drachma at an exchange rate not of your choosing. For example, your 1,000 euros will become 100 drachma…or even 10,000 drachma. The nominal amount won’t matter. What matters is that the devaluation strips you of 70% or 80% of your purchasing power.
Most people would avoid that kind of value destruction if they could. Maybe that explains why €700 million was withdrawn from Greek banks on Monday, according to remarks made by Greek President Karolos Papoulias and reported in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal reports that between €2 and €3 billion in deposits have been withdrawn from the Greek banking system each month for the past two years. January was a high point, with €5 billion.
A bank run by any other name would look as desperate. And who wouldn’t be desperate now? Leaving the euro, devaluing the drachma, and defaulting on debt owed to foreign creditors are Greece’s best long-term economic survival strategy. But the unavoidable side-effect is to destroy the savings of the people, not to mention usher in a period of lower standards of living. That won’t win you many votes. It may start a revolution.
And how do you prevent the Greek precedent from being imitated by the Spanish and the Italians? To be candid, we don’t think it matters much now. Greece can’t afford to stay in the euro. The Spanish and the Italians can’t afford to leave it.
The economies and banking systems of Spain and Italy are indispensable to Europe. If they leave the euro, there is no euro. The Greeks can leave, devalue, default and use a weaker currency to claw their way back to economic competitiveness. If the Spanish and Italians leave, they lose access to private capital, they lose access to the ECB and they take down Europe’s banking system. They can’t leave. More importantly, they can’t be allowed to leave.
This makes the task of the European Central Bank (ECB) much easier. It simply has to guarantee Greek debt owed to all non-Greek creditors. Or, it could simply buy that debt. This would solve the problem of anyone outside Greece taking losses on Greek debt.
This is what corporatism looks like, when the Big State and Big Finance become the Big Power in the economy. Losses cannot be tolerated. Any loss results in lower equity capital at a financial firm would require selling assets. Since everyone owns a piece of everyone else, and owes to everyone else, any major loss in one place results in losses everywhere.
Of course it’s absurd that Europe is moving toward this kind of ‘extreme socialism’. The people most responsible for the crisis are not accountable and the people who have saved get punished. The elite are enriched and everyone else is enslaved.
This is why the financial crisis could so quickly become a political and social crisis. When people don’t think they can get justice from the courts or the cops, and when they think that cheating is the only way to get ahead in a system, the political and financial order is on borrowed time. The clock is ticking.
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