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Posts Tagged ‘Greece’

On rare occasions, I dream about being a politician or high-level international bureaucrat. Not because I want to be a moocher (please put me out of my misery if that ever happens), but because I periodically read about some sleazy interest group making petulant demands for handouts and I think about how much fun it would be to tell them to go jump in a lake.

In some cases, the sleazy interest group is an entire nation. Greece recently took a bailout from both the European Union (i.e., European taxpayers) and the International Monetary Fund (i.e., all taxpayers). In exchange for getting a handout, Greek politicians agreed to implement a bunch of deficit-reduction policies.

But like many welfare recipients, the country of Greece has an entitlement mentality and is now whining and complaining about having to live up to its side of the bargain.

All I can think about is how rewarding and satisfying it would be to say, “okay, a__h___s, have it your way, we’re revoking your bailout. Have fun becoming Argentina on your way to becoming Zimbabwe, you bloodsucking leeches.”

Actually, if I had that power, Greece never would have received a bailout in the first place, but I think you know what I mean.

Here are some excerpts from the Reuters report about Greece’s chutzpah.

Greece accused the EU and IMF of interfering in its domestic affairs on Saturday after the international lenders said Athens must speed up reforms and sell more public assets. On Friday, EU and IMF inspectors visiting Greece to monitor the implementation of a bailout plan that saved Greece from bankruptcy, approved more aid for the country but adopted a more critical tone than on previous visits. In rare harsh words, the Greek government said the inspectors’ approach was unacceptable, after coming under fire from local media for not reacting to criticism of the pace of reforms and the call for privatizations. …Earlier in the day, government spokesman George Petalotis said: “We asked nobody to interfere in domestic affairs … We only take orders from the Greek people.”

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Thanks to decades of reckless spending by European welfare states, the newspapers are filled with headlines about debt, default, contagion, and bankruptcy.

We know that Greece and Ireland already have received direct bailouts, and other European welfare states are getting indirect bailouts from the European Central Bank, which is vying with the Federal Reserve in a contest to see which central bank can win the “Most Likely to Appease the Political Class” Award.

But which nation will be the next domino to fall? Who will get the next direct bailout?

Some people think total government debt is the key variable, and there’s been a lot of talk that debt levels of 90 percent of GDP represent some sort of fiscal Maginot Line. Once nations get above that level, there’s a risk of some sort of crisis.

But that’s not necessarily a good rule of thumb. This chart, based on 2010 data from the Economist Intelligence Unit (which can be viewed with a very user-friendly map), shows that Japan’s debt is nearly 200 percent of GDP, yet Japanese debt is considered very safe, based on the market for credit default swaps, which measures the cost of insuring debt. Indeed, only U.S. debt is seen as a better bet.

Interest payments on debt may be a better gauge of a nation’s fiscal health. The next chart (2011 data) shows the same countries, and the two nations with the highest interest costs, Greece and Ireland, already have been bailed out. Interestingly, Japan is in the best shape, even though it has the biggest debt. This shows why interest rates are very important. If investors think a nation is safe, they don’t require high interest rates to compensate them for the risk of default (fears of future inflation also can play a role, since investors don’t like getting repaid with devalued currency).

Based on this second chart, it appears that Italy, Portugal, and Belgium are the next dominos to topple. Portugal may be the best bet (no pun intended) based on credit default swap rates, and that certainly is consistent with the current speculation about an official bailout.

Spain is the wild card in this analysis. It has the second-lowest level of both debt and interest payments as shares of GDP, but the CDS market shows that Spanish government debt is a greater risk than bonds from either Italy or Belgium.

By the way, the CDS market shows that lending money to Illinois and California is also riskier than lending to either Italy or Belgium.

The moral of the story is that there is no magic point where deficit spending leads to a fiscal crisis, but we do know that it is a bad idea for governments to engage in reckless spending over a long period of time. That’s a recipe for stifling taxes and large deficits. And when investors see the resulting combination of sluggish growth and rising debt, eventually they will run out of patience.

The Bush-Obama policy of big government has moved America in the wrong direction. But if the data above is any indication, America probably has some breathing room. What happens on the budget this year may be an indication of whether we use that time wisely.

 

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Professor Larry Kotlikoff has some very sobering analysis of America’s fiscal status. Instead of just looking at current deficits, he examines the “present value” of all future expenditures and revenues. Simply stated, America is in worse shape than Greece because of the long-term burden of entitlement programs. Kotlikoff’s conclusion that America is “one foot away from a deep and permanent economic grave” may be a bit too strong, but he is certainly correct that unrestrained spending is going to cause serious damage.

Greek long-term government bond yields are running 700 basis points above comparable US Treasuries. The inference is that America is in far better fiscal shape than Greece. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Greek debt totals 120 per cent of gross domestic product, twice the US figure. But debt alone tells us little about a country’s fiscal condition.

…During the past half-century, the US has sold tens of trillions of unofficial IOUs, leaving it with liabilities to pay Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits that total 40 times official debt.

…Fortunately, theory suggests a label-free measure of fiscal status: the fiscal gap, or the present value difference between all future expenditures and receipts. The Greek fiscal gap is staggering. Calculations developed with my colleagues at Freiberg University put it at 11.5 per cent of the value of Greece’s future GDP. And this huge figure already incorporates Greece’s recently legislated fiscal policy retrenchment. But the US figure, based on the Congressional Budget Office’s just-released projections, is even larger: 12.2 per cent.

Clearly, Greece is in terrible fiscal shape. To get its books in order it would have to pull in its belt each year by another 11.5 per cent of GDP. This provides new meaning to the word draconian. But the US is in much worse shape, because the CBO’s projections that reveal the 12.2 per cent fiscal gap already assume a 7.2 per cent of GDP belt-tightening by 2020.

…Wishing won’t fix America’s fiscal mess. The US is one foot away from a deep and permanent economic grave. It is far past time to do meaningful long-term fiscal planning, level with the public, and implement radical reforms that permanently put America’s fiscal house in order.

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It’s been amusing, in an I-told-you-so fashion, to follow the fiscal crises in Greece, Spain, and other European welfare states. And I feel like a voyeuristic ghoul as I observe the incredibly misguided bailout policies being adopted by the political elites (who are trying to bailout the business elites who made silly loans to corrupt nations in Southern Europe). But I’m not sure how to describe my emotions (dumbfounded fascination?) about the latest bad idea emanating from Europe – to have a fiscal federation that would give bureaucrats in Brussels power over national budgets.

It’s quite possible that this would result in some externally-imposed discipline for a basket case such as Greece, so it would not always lead to terrible results. But most of the decisions would be bad, particularly since the Euro-crats would use new powers to curtail tax competition in order to enhance the ability of governments to impose bad tax policy in order to seize more money. Moreover, fiscal centralization would exacerbate the main problem in Europe by creating a new avenue – cross-border subsidies – for people who want to mooch by getting access to other people’s money. The Wall Street Journal Europe has a good editorial on the issue:

Of all the possible responses to Europe’s sovereign debt woes, the notion of centralizing fiscal authority in Brussels may well be the most destructive. But that was exactly what European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet proposed in testimony before the European Parliament Monday.

Mr. Trichet’s idea is that an independent body within the European Commission should have broad power to sanction national governments for fiscal or macroeconomic policies that threatened the stability of the euro. This would amount, in Mr. Trichet’s words, to the “equivalent of a fiscal federation” for the euro zone. Mr. Trichet has spent nearly 40 years as a civil servant in one form or another, which may explain his belief that Europe’s budgetary problems can be solved by technocrats.

…Fiscal centralization would also undermine competition between different fiscal and macroeconomic policies within the euro zone. That would delight some countries, and probably some at the European Commission as well. During this crisis, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde has criticized Germany for becoming too competitive for the euro zone’s own good. And a decade ago, France was among the euro-zone countries that attacked Ireland for lowering its corporate income-tax rate to 12.5% to attract investment.

…Ireland’s 12.5% corporate tax rate was an experiment that contributed to a lowering of rates around the world in the succeeding years.

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Americans should not get too smug about the troubles in Europe because the Bush-Obama policies of wasteful spending are bringing us down the same path. The latest evidence comes from a well-researched article about personal income in USA Today showing that the share from private paychecks fell to a record low and the share from government handouts reached a record high. As Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center points out in her quote, this is the pattern that led to fiscal disaster in Greece:

Paychecks from private business shrank to their smallest share of personal income in U.S. history during the first quarter of this year, a USA TODAY analysis of government data finds. At the same time, government-provided benefits — from Social Security, unemployment insurance, food stamps and other programs — rose to a record high during the first three months of 2010. …The result is a major shift in the source of personal income from private wages to government programs. The trend is not sustainable, says University of Michigan economist Donald Grimes. Reason: The federal government depends on private wages to generate income taxes to pay for its ever-more-expensive programs. Government-generated income is taxed at lower rates or not at all, he says. “This is really important,” Grimes says. …Economist Veronique de Rugy of the free-market Mercatus Center at George Mason University says the riots in Greece over cutting benefits to close a huge budget deficit are a warning about unsustainable income programs. Economist David Henderson of the conservative Hoover Institution says a shift from private wages to government benefits saps the economy of dynamism. “People are paid for being rather than for producing,” he says.
http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/income/2010-05-24-income-shifts-from-private-sector_N.htm

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Actually, that’s too broad of a brush, but I do despise people of any nationality who think that they are entitled to mooch off the labor and capital of others. I also fear for my country because of such people. Benjamin Franklin is rumored to have said that, “When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” I don’t know if that is a real quote, but it accurately captures the problem with modern democracy (which is why our Founders gave us a constitutional republic, where our rights to life, liberty, and (especially) property were not subject to the tyranny of the majority). Writing for the City Journal, Theodore Dalrymple makes the essential point that what is happening in Greece is democratic corruption. In other words, the Greek people no longer have the social capital needed for a functioning democracy:

When the crowd tried to storm the Greek parliament, shouting, “Thieves! Thieves!,” its anger was misdirected. It was a classic case of what Freudians call projection: the attribution to others of one’s own faults. It is true that the Greek politicians are much to blame for the current situation, and no doubt many of them are thieves; but their real crime was not stealing, but offering a substantial proportion of the Greek population a standard of living that was economically unjustified, maintained for a time by borrowing, and in the long run unsustainable, in return for votes. The crime of that substantial proportion of the Greek population was to accept the bribe that the politicians offered; they were only too prepared to live well at someone else’s expense. The thieves were not principally the politicians, but the demonstrators. Such popular dishonesty is by no means confined to Greece. In varying degrees, most countries in the West have displayed it, Britain above all. It is perhaps an inherent problem wherever the universal franchise is unaccompanied by widespread virtues such as honesty, self-control, providence, prudence, and self-respect. Greece is therefore a cradle not only of democracy, but of democratic corruption. The Greek demonstrators did not understand, or did not want to understand, that if there were justice in the world, many people, including themselves, would be worse rather than better off, and that a reduction in their salaries and perquisites was not only economically necessary but just. They had never really earned their wages in the first place; politicians borrowed the money and then dispensed largesse, like monarchs throwing coins to the multitudes. http://www.city-journal.org/2010/eon0507td.html

Meanwhile, Mona Charen is rightfully amused at the absurdity of the press writing about “anti-government” riots when the rioters are overpaid government workers and the target of their wrath is a socialist government. She also makes an excellent point that the bureaucracy is so pervasive in Greece that government unions just elect the people who promise to give them absurdly unaffordable pay and benefits:

That “anti-government mob,” it must be understood, consisted of civil servants, tens of thousands of whom took to the streets to protest austerity measures. …One in three Greeks works for the government. Government employees enjoy higher wages, more munificent benefits, and earlier retirements than private-sector employees. Civil servants can retire after 35 years of service at 80 percent of their highest salary and enjoy lavish health plans, vacations, and other perks. Because they are so numerous, and because Greece is highly centralized, public-sector unions hardly have to negotiate. They simply vote in their preferred bosses. Some civil servants receive bonuses for using computers, others for arriving at work on time. Forestry workers get a bonus for outdoor work. All civil servants receive 14 yearly checks for twelve months’ work. And it’s almost impossible to fire them — even for the grossest incompetence.
http://article.nationalreview.com/433639/lessons-for-the-us-in-greeces-national-meltdown/mona-charen

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