The Greek finance minister European tour of charm has some reasonable ideas in terms of financial engineering. Unfortunately, adjustment is about operational restructuring and only when this has been agreed should the financial engineering solution be designed. I will explain why through two stories.
First the micro story: imagine that Greece is a large corporation running three different businesses. The first business has a good customer basis (e.g. healthcare) but low profits because of over manning. The second has a very long payback period (e.g. infrastructure) and will only turn a profit after a decade. The third is a loss making business (e.g. corporate welfare) with a bleak outlook in terms of future returns. Overall, the company is heavily indebted and runs at a small profit or loss.
Let us consider three restructuring options: a) close down business 3, sell business 2 and use proceeds to refinance business 1; b) refinance existing debt, declare a wage cut for all businesses, stop any further investments in business 2 and reorganize business 3; and c) draw some idealistic reorganization plans and try to convince the creditors that it can only repay them by investing more in the three businesses.
Restructuring plan a) is what a private sector company might do. It would not be the most efficient, because it would not solve the over manning and would jeopardise its service quality and client base. It would continue a lousy business but generating enough cash to keep the creditors happy.
Plan b) is what one may call a restructuring a la Troika. It would ease the financial pressure in the short term but would not improve any of the businesses. Business 3 would still run at a loss and businesses 2 and 1 would deteriorate in both quality and customer base.
Plan c) we may call it a wishful thinking Syriza plan. If “romantic” creditors bought it, they would only throw good money after bad money. The promised growth, even if it happens, will not be enough or sustainable and will only last as long credit keeps flowing in.
Now for the macro story. Of course, if restructuring was done along private sector lines (option 1) the company will not need to worry much about what would happen to businesses 3 and 2, since business 1 was small in relation to the rest of the economy. However, this a fundamental difference in relation to Greece. The country as a whole could not ignore the macro consequences of plan 1, because aggregate demand would reduce significantly causing economic decline instead of growth with a consequent rise in unemployment. So, what could the central bank and budgetary authorities do to minimize such effects?
If they had their own currency (which Greece no longer has), they could devalue it to ensure that real (not nominal) wages would decline making the country as a whole more competitive and hope that the unemployed would quickly get a new job in the export oriented industries. This could be supplemented by printing money, retraining and many other supply side measures. Whether this was enough is not relevant because Greece wants to remain in the Euro and the ECB cannot manage the Euro to meet the needs of Greece. Moreover, Greece is indeed the heavily indebted company and would need extra credit to finance such measures, credit that she no longer may create and has difficulty to obtain in the financial markets.
As expected, see my 2011 post, plan b) has already failed with dramatic declines in GDP and employment. Plan c) could ease the current social disaster in the short run but would make the current imbalances much worse, by compounding over manning across all businesses, perpetuating loss making businesses and government mismanagement.
So, which macro policies can be implemented to emulate a better private sector restructuring plan compatible with economic growth? Basically by providing extra funding and refinancing based on strict conditionality to impose a modified private restructuring plan.
These modifications should involve a mandatory reduction of over manning in the surviving businesses 1 and 2. All redundant workers should be paid a temporary unemployment benefit plus grants to promote labour mobility and the creation of self-employment businesses. The business sector 2 should be capitalized and progressively privatized to maintain a minimum level of investment on a selective basis (only for projects with a short payback period or export orientation). Internal devaluation should be achieved by longer working hours paid in non-negotiable long term government bonds. The fiscal and welfare systems should be entirely revamped and simplified to eradicate tax evasion, free riding and corruption.
As long as conditionality forces the Greeks to use their well-known creativity in the right direction, instead of accounting and fiscal tricks, they will come up with many other ideas and we do not need to enter into further details here.
What Greece, Europe and its creditors cannot afford is to let the Greeks deviate from following a private sector type of restructuring. Without such conditionality, any moratoria, debt swaps, special funds and other types of financial engineering are a waste of money.
Otherwise, everyone risks being caught into a loose-loose dispute between Syriza’s loony left agenda and the Troika’s austerity fairy tale that self-flagellation creates by itself an invigorated economy.