Category Archives: Greek crisis

23/5/16: Greek Debt Sustainability and IMF’s Pipe Dreams

IMF outlined its position on Greek debt sustainability, once again stressing the fact - known to everyone with an ounce of brain left untouched by Eurohopium injections from Brussels and Frankfurt : Greek debt is currently unsustainable.

Here are some details of the IMF’s latest encounter with reality:

Firstly, per IMF: Greek “debt was deemed sustainable, but not with high probability, when the first program was adopted in May 2010. Public debt was projected to surge from 115 percent of GDP to a peak of 150 percent of GDP, primarily because the expected internal devaluation implied declining nominal GDP while fiscal deficits were expected to add to the debt burden, but also because of the decision to forgo a private sector debt restructuring (PSI).”

Several things to note here. The extent of internal devaluation required for Greece is a function of several aspects of Euro area policies, most notably, lack of functional independent currency that can absorb - via normal devaluation - some of the shocks; lack of will on behalf of the EU to restructure official debt owed by Greece to EFSF/ESM pair of European institutions and to the ECB; and effective capture of virtually all Greek ‘assistance’ funds within the banking sector and external financing sector, with zero trickle down from these sectors funding to the real economy. In other words, there were plenty of sources for Greek debt non-sustainability arising from EU construct and policies.

Secondly, “the much deeper-than-expected recession necessitated significant debt relief in 2011-12 to maintain the prospect of restoring sustainability. Private creditors accepted large haircuts;… European partners provided very large NPV relief by extending maturities and reducing and deferring interest payments; and Fund maturities were lengthened…”

Which, of course is rather ironic. Lack of functional mechanisms for the recovery in the Greek case included, in addition to those internal to the Greek economic institutions, also the three factors outlined above. In other words, de facto, 2011-2012 restructuring of debt was, at least in part, compensatory measures for exogenous drivers of the Greek crisis. The EU paid for its own poor institutional set up.

However, as IMF notes, “European partners also pledged to provide additional debt relief—if needed—to meet specific debt-to-GDP targets (of 124 percent by 2020 and well under 110 percent by 2022). Critically for the DSA, the Greek government at the time insisted — supported by its European partners — on preserving the very ambitious targets for growth, the fiscal surplus, and privatization, arguing that there was broad political support for the underlying policies.”

Oh dear, per IMF, therefore (and of course the Fund is correct here), the idiocy of shooting Greece in both feet was of not only European making, but also of Greek making. No kidding: Greek own Governments have insisted (and continue to insist) on internecine, unrealistic and outright stupid targets that even the IMF is feeling nauseous about.

“Serious implementation problems caused a sharp deterioration in sustainability, raising fresh doubts about the realism of policy assumptions, especially from mid–2014. The authorities’ hoped-for broad political support for the program did not materialize…  causing long delays in concluding reviews, with only 5 of 16 originally scheduled reviews eventually completed. The problems mounted from mid-2014, with across-the-board reversals after the change of government in early-2015. Staff’s revised DSA—published in June 2015—suggested that the agreed debt targets for 2020-2022 would be missed by over 30 percent of GDP.”

This is clinical. Pre-conditions for August 2015 Bailout 3.0 were set by a combination of external (EU-driven) and internal (domestic politics-driven) factors that effectively confirmed the absolute absurdity of the whole programme. Yes, the IMF is trying to walk away now from sitting at the very same table where all of this transpired. And yes, the IMF deserves to be placed onto the second tier of blame here. Blame is due nonetheless, as the Fund could have attempted to seriously force the EU hand on changing the programme on a number of occasions, but it continued to support the Greek programme, broadly, even while issuing caveats.

But give a cheer to the Tsipras’ Government utter senility: “Critically, …the new government insisted—like its predecessor—that it could garner political support for the necessary underlying reforms.”

And now onto new stuff.

Per IMF’s today’s note: “developments since last summer suggest that a realignment of critical policy and DSA assumptions can no longer be deferred if the DSA is to remain credible. While there certainly has been progress in some areas under the new program that was put in place in August 2015 with support by the ESM, and growth and primary balance out-turns last year were better than expected, the government has not been able to mobilize political support for the overall pace of reforms that would be required to retain the June 2015 DSA’s still ambitious assumptions of a dramatic, rapid, and sustained improvement in productivity and fiscal performance. In all key policy areas—fiscal, financial sector stability, labor, product and service markets—the authorities’ current policy plans fall well short of what would be required to achieve their ambitious fiscal and growth targets.”

Pardon me here, but I seriously doubt the primary problem is with the Greek Government inability to mobilize political support. Actually, the real problem is that the entire framework is so full of imaginary numbers, that any Government in any state of political leadership will have zero chance at delivering on these projections. Yes, the Greeks are blessed with a Government that would’t be able to replace a battery in a calculator, but now, even with fresh batteries no calculator would be able to solve the required growth equations.

So, we have the IMF conclusion: “Consequently, staff believes that a realignment of assumptions with the evident political and social constraints on the pace and scope of adjustment is needed”. In more common parlance, the IMF has to revise its model assumptions as follows:

Primary surplus (aka - austerity):  The IMF recognizes that current tax rates are already too high in Greece (that’s right, the IMF actually finds Greek tax targets to be self-defeating), while expenditure cuts have been ad hoc, as opposed to structural. Thus, with “…tax compliance rates falling precipitously and discretionary spending already severely compressed, staff believes that the additional adjustment needed to allow Greece to run sustained primary surpluses over the long run can only be achieved if based on measures to broaden the tax base and lowering outlays on wages and pensions, which by now account for as much as 75 percent primary spending… This suggests that it is unrealistic to assume that Greece can undertake the additional adjustment of 4½ percent of GDP needed to base the DSA on a primary surplus of 3½ percent of GDP.”

This is bad. And it is direct. But IMF wants to make an even stronger point to get through the thick skulls of Greek authorities and their EU masters: “Even if Greece through a heroic effort could temporarily reach a surplus close to 3½ percent of GDP, few countries have managed to reach and sustain such high levels of primary balances for a decade or more, and it is highly unlikely that Greece can do so considering its still weak policy
making institutions and projections suggesting that unemployment will remain at double digits for several decades.” ‘Heroic’ efforts - even in theory - are not enough anymore, says the IMF. I would suggest they were never enough. But, hey, let’s not split hairs.

So to make things more ‘realistic’, the IMF estimates that primary surplus long run target should be 1.5 percent of GDP - full half of the previously required. Still, even this lower target is highly uncertain (per IMF) as it will require extraordinary discipline from the current and future Greek governments. Personally, I doubt Greece will be able to run even that surplus target for longer than 5 years before sliding into its ‘normal’ pattern of spending money it doesn’t have.

Growth (aka illusionary holy grail of debt/GDP ratios):  “Staff believes that the continued absence of political support for a strong and broad
acceleration of structural reforms suggests that it is no longer tenable to base the DSA on the assumption that Greece can quickly move from having one of the lowest to having the highest productivity growth rates in the eurozone.”

Reasons for doom? 

  1. “…the bank recapitalization completed in 2015 was not accompanied by an upfront governance overhaul to overcome longstanding problems, including susceptibility to political interference in bank management. …in the absence of more forceful actions by regulators, and in view of the exceptionally large level of NPLs [non-performing loans] and high share of Deferred Tax Assets in bank capital, banks will be burdened by very weak balance sheets for years to come, suggesting that they will be unable to provide credit to the economy on a scale needed to support very ambitious growth targets.” There are several problems with this assessment. One: credit creation is unimaginable in the Greek economy today even if the banks were fully reformed because there is no domestic demand and because absent currency devaluation there is also no external demand. Two: despite a massive (95%+ of all bailout funds) injection into the banking sector, Greek NPLs remain unresolved. In a way, the EU simply wasted all the money without achieving anything real in the Greek case.
  2. lack of structural reforms in the collective dismissals and industrial action frameworks “and the still extremely gradual pace at which Greece envisages to tackle its pervasive restrictions in product and service markets are also not consistent with the very ambitious growth assumptions”.

So, on the net, “against this background, staff has lowered its long-term growth assumption to 1¼ percent… Here as well the revised assumption remains ambitious in as much as it assumes steadfastness in implementing reforms that exceeds the experience to date, such that Greece would converge to the average productivity growth in the euro-zone over the long-term.”

So how bad are the matters, really, when it comes to Greek debt sustainability?

Per IMF: “Under staff’s baseline assumptions, there is a substantial gap between projected
outcomes and the sustainability objectives … The revised projections suggest that debt will be around 174 percent of GDP by 2020, and 167 percent by 2022. …Debt is projected to decline gradually to just under 160 percent by 2030 as the output gap closes, but trends upwards thereafter, reaching around 250 percent of GDP by 2060, as the cost of debt, which rises over time as market financing replaces highly subsidized official sector financing, more than offsets the debt-reducing effects of growth and the primary balance surplus”.

A handy chart to compare current assessment against June 2015 bombshell that almost exploded the Bailout 3.0

As a result of the above revised estimates/assumptions: a “substantial reprofiling of the terms of European loans to Greece is thus required to bring GFN down by around 20 percent of GDP by 2040 and an additional 20 percent by 2060,…based on a combination of three measures..:

  • Maturity extensions: An extension of maturities for EFSF, ESM and GLF loans of, up to 14 years for EFSF loans, 10 years for ESM loans, and 30 years for GLF loans could reduce the GFN and debt ratios by about 7 and 25 percent of GDP by 2060 respectively. However, this measure alone would be insufficient to restore sustainability.
  • …Extending the deferrals on debt service further could help reduce GFN further by 17 percent of GDP by 2040 and 24 percent by 2060, and …could lower debt by 84 percent of GDP by 2060 (This would imply an extension of grace periods on existing debt ranging from 6 years on ESM loans to 17 and 20 years for EFSF and GLF loans, respectively, as well as an extension of the current deferral on interest payments on EFSF loans by a further 17 years together with interest deferrals on ESM and GLF loans by up to 24 years). However, even in this case, GFN would exceed 20 percent by 2050, and debt would be on a rising path.
  • To ensure that debt can remain on a downward path, official interest rates would need to be fixed at low levels for an extended period, not exceeding 1½ percent until 2040. …Adding this measure to the two noted above helps to reduce debt by 53 percent of GDP by 2040 and 151 percent by 2060, and GFN by 22 percent by 2040 and 39 percent by 2060, which satisfies the sustainability objectives noted earlier”.

So, in the nutshell, to achieve - theoretical - sustainability even under rather optimistic assumptions and with unprecedented (to-date) efforts at structural reforms, Greece requires a write-off of some 50% of GDP in net present value terms through 2040. Still, hedging its bets for the next 5 years, the IMF notes: “Even under the proposed debt restructuring scenarios, debt dynamics remain highly sensitive to shocks.”

In other words, per IMF, with proposed debt relief, Greece is probabilistically still screwed.

Which, of course, begs a question: why would the IMF not call for simple two-step approach to Greek debt resolution:

  • Step 1: fix interest on loans at zero percent through 2040 or 2050 (placing bonds with the ECB and mandating the ECB monetizes interest on these bonds payable by EFSF/ESM et al). Annual cost would be issuance of ca EUR 2 billion in currency per annum - nothing that would add to the inflationary pressures in the euro area at any point in time;
  • Step 2: require annual assessment of Greek compliance with reforms programme in exchange for (Step 1).

Ah, yes, I forgot, we have an ‘independent’ ECB… right, then… back to imaginative fiscal acrobatics.

One has to feel for the Greeks: screwed by Europe, screwed by their own governments and politically ‘corrected’ by the IMF. Now, wait, of course, all the upset must be directed toward getting rid of the latter. Because the former two cannot be anything else, but friends…

11/5/16: 7+1 Steps Guide to Greek Crisis Madness

Greece is back in the news recently with yet another round of crisis talks and measures. Here's where we stand on the matter.

After another Eurogroup 'talks' this week, Greek Government is back to drawing up a new set of 'measures' to be presented to the Parliament. These 'measures' are, once again, needed for yet another Eurogroup agreement of yet more loans to the country.

The madness of this recurring annual spectacle that the EU, the Greeks and the IMF have been going through is so apparent and so predictable by now, that anywhere outside Greece itself it is simply banal.

The scenario is developing exactly along the same lines as before:

  1. Greeks are running out money
  2. Greek loans funds are not being remitted by the EU because of the 'lack of progress on 'reforms' which were never progressed since the Bailouts 1.0 & 2.0.
  3. Greek Government insists that no more 'reforms' can be imposed onto the Greek economy because there is already no economy left due to previously imposed 'reforms'
  4. IMF threatens to walk out and European authorities become 'doubtful' of Greek commitments to 'reforms'
  5. European authorities and Greece get into a room to hammer our (3) as a precondition for (2) both of which are necessary to avoid Greek default and are thus required to prevent (4).
  6. Greece agrees to more 'reforms', gets more loans, none of which have anything to do with actually supporting Greek economy
  7. Greek government declares another 'victory' on the road of the country 'exit from an era of creditors', whilst creditors become ever more committed to Greece.
  8. Within 6 months, (1) repeats anew...

And this is exactly what has been happening over the recent days.

Government partner Panos Kammenos has already heralded “Greece’s exit from an era of creditors" this week in the wake of the promises by Greece to implement new round of 'reforms' aimed at placating the EU and the IMF into providing fresh credit to Greece. The target date for Greek Government putting its tail between its legs for the umpteenth time is May 24th when the Eurogroup is supposed to meet to decide on the next round of debt financing for Greece.
What are the latest 'reforms' about?

  1. New privatization fund (because previous one did nada, zilch, nothing) to sell state assets (with hugely inflated expected valuations) to investors (read vultures) to generate funds (that will fall grossly short of) required to pay some debt down.
  2. New rules for working out non-performing bank loans (foreclosure & bankruptcy reforms) because under (1) above, vultures, sorry 'investors', ain't getting enough.  
  3. Load of new taxes (levying coffee, fuel and even web connections, for a modern economy cannot exists in the vacuum of knowledge taxes).
  4. Automatic cuts to fiscal spending should the Government breach targets on fiscal deficits assigned under 2015 'deal'.
  5. EUR5.4 billion in fresh budget cuts.

In return, Tsipras is getting Eurogroup's usual waffle.

The IMF (that actually holds more central position between the Greek and the EU corners) will probably be allowed to excuse itself from underwriting Bailout 3.0 agreed last Summer. This will load full Greek bailout cost onto the EU institutions - something that Europe is happy to do because the IMF has become a realist thorn in the hopium filled buttocks of European 'policymaking'. IMF will, of course, rubber stamp the Bailout 3.0 programme by remaining an 'advisory' institution (sort of like Irish Fiscal Council - bark, but no bite). In exchange, it will get European funds to repay IMF loans and will walk away from the saga with bruises, but no broken nose. Rumour has it, Germany will accept this role for the IMF but only if Greece agrees to become Europe's holding tank for refugees (it's an equivalent of Turkey Compromise with Athens that will make Erdogan livid with jealousy).

Tsipras will also receive another promise from the EU to examine Greek debt relief. By now, everyone forgot that the EU already promised to do so four years ago (see last page, 2nd paragraph in Eurogroup statement from November 27, 2012 and reiterated it in August 11, 2015 Bailout3.0 agreement). Thus, Tsipras will be able to put a new 'certificate of a promise' (written in French or German or both, for better effect) onto his cabinet wall, while being fully aware that a promise from the EU is about as good as a used car salesman's assurances about a vehicle's transmission. The only chance any sort of relief will be forthcoming is if the IMF amplifies its rhetoric about Greek debt 'sustainability', which may happen at the next G7 meeting next week, or may not happen for another six months... who knows?

Meanwhile, the saga rolls on. Protests in Greece - 'Everyone'sOutraged', are greeted by the markets as 'Things Are Going Swimmingly' just as IMF's team is shouting 'The Patient's Dead, You Morons!' while Germans are saying first 'Nothing's Happening' and a week later changing their minds to 'Things Are so Good, We'll Have a Deal' to the solo of a Greek official singing 'We've Been Half Dozing' and a chorus of EU leaders erupting with a jubilatory 'Lalala'.

Remember: we are in Europe! Mind the gap... with reality.

21/4/16: Drama & Comedy Back: Grexit, Greesis, Whatever

Back in July last year, I wrote in the Irish Independent about the hen 'latest' Greek debt crisis: Optimistically, I predicted that a full-blown crisis will return to Greece in 2018-2020, based on simple mathematics of debt maturities. I was wrong. We are not yet into a full year of the Greek Bailout 3.0 and things are heading for yet another showdown between the Three-headed Hydra the inept Greek authorities, the delusional Germany, and the Lost in the Woods T-Rex of the IMF.

Predictably, IMF is still sticking to its Summer 2015 arithmetic: Greek debt is simply not adding up to anything close to being sustainable: an example of the rhetoric here. Meanwhile, the FT is piping in with a rather good analysis of the political dancing going on around Greece: here. The latter provides a summary of new dimensions to the crisis:

  1. Brexit
  2. Refugees crisis
But there is a kicker. Greece is now in a primary surplus: latest Eurostat figures put Greek primary balance at +0.7% GDP for 2015, well above -0.25% target. And Greek Government debt actually declined from EUR320.51 billion in 2013 to EUR319.72 billion in 2014 and EUR311.45 billion in 2015. This can and will be interpreted in Berlin as a sign of 'improved' fiscal performance, attributable to the Bailout 3.0 'reforms' and 'assistance'. The argument here will be that Greece is on the mend and there is no need for any debt relief as the result.

Still, official Government deficit shot from 3.6% of GDP in 2014 to 7.2% in 2015. Annual rate of inflation over the last 6 months has averaged just under -0.1 percent, signalling continued deterioration in economic conditions. Severe deprivation rate for Greek population rose to the crisis period high in 2015 of 22.2 percent, up on 21.5 percent in 2014. Industrial production on a monthly basis posted negative rates of growth in January and February 2016, with February rate of contraction at -4.4% signalling a disaster state, corresponding to 3% drop on the same period 2015. Volume of retail sales fell 2.2% y/y in January marking fourth annual rate of contraction in the last 5 months. Unemployment was 24% in December 2015 (the latest month for which data is available), which is down from 25.9% for December 2014, but the decline is more likely than not attributable to simple attrition of the unemployed from the register, rather than any substantial improvement in employment.

In simple terms, Greece remains a disaster zone, with few signs of any serious recovery around. And with that, the IMF will have to continue insisting on tangible debt relief from non-IMF funders of the Bailout 3.0.

It is a mess. Which probably explains why normally rather good Washington Post had to resort to a bizarre, incoherent, Trumpaesque coverage of the subject. This,, in the nutshell, sums up American's disinterested engagement with Europe. 

Enjoy. Grexit is back for a new season to the screens near you. And so is Greesis - that unique blend of fire and ice that has occupied our newsflows for 6 years now with high drama and some comedy.

2/4/16: Tsipras: Europe’s Cross of Forest Gump and Donald Trump

The tragedy of Europe is the comedy of Europe. And it is best illustrated in the case of Greece, or by Greece, where the latest debt-related scandal is telling us more about the infinite degree of European leaders' tupidity and outright lack of duty of care for their own citizens and societies than anything Kafka could have contrived.

The basis for the scandal is the following:

Act 1: IMF staff had a conference call discussing their engagement with the European Institutions in renewing the Greek bailout deal that is due to be renewed (from IMF side) in April. Now, as a precondition to this conversation we have:

  • Greece is carrying to much debt after the 'breakthrough' deal 'achieved' last summer and it cannot repay all this debt. 
  • IMF knows as much and said as much officially
  • IMF also knows, and has publicly declared this before, that Greek debt can only be made sustainable by European authorities engaging in debt restructuring for Greece that introduces real haircuts on debt.
  • Thus, IMF position going into April is to support Greek economy's objective of attaining debt relief from European 'partners'
  • IMF are the good guys for Greek economy (as far as anyone in the game can be a good guy, of course).
Act 2: At the call, details of which were leaked, IMF officials discussed between themselves a possibility for the Fund taking a hardline position with respect to European Institutions in an attempt to influence them to give Greece debt relief. Which means that:
  • IMF was considering strong-arming Europe into doing the right thing for Greece; and
  • Greece would have benefited socially and economically if IMF were successful in what was discussed
Act 3: Enter 'Forest Gump Grafted on Donald Trump' of European politics - Greek PM Alexis Tsipras. Tsipras goes apoplectic with two things IMF conference call leak did:
  • One, Tsipras is livid with the IMF discussing the tactic that could help Greek people by reducing the unsustainable debt burden they are forced to carry courtesy of the EU. The PM of an excessively indebted nation forced onto its knees by collapsed economy and debts is actively fighting against an idea of giving help to that economy.  And he is doing so despite the fact that this debt relief was his own  electoral platform! The lad is certifiable.
  • Two, Tsipras if livid that someone leaked the transcript of the conversation, because, presumably in Europe, when a tree falls in a forest no one cares - out of sight = out of mind. It is the public embarrassment for a PM who barked at the IMF all along despite the fact that the IMF was all along his only friend in the entire EU-led fiasco of debasing the Greek economy. The embarrassment of being shown publicly to be damaging to his own society and economy. The lad is venal.
This latest three-acts Greek drama is beyond any comparative I can think of in modern history. If the Greek people ever wanted a PM who can throughly destroy the entire Greek society whilst shedding crocodile tears at the loss, they could not have invented a protagonist villain functional enough to match Tsipras.

Details of the drama are conveyed here:

4/2/16: Tear Gas v Lagarde’s Tears: Greece

Here’s Greece on pensions reforms:


Here’s IMF on same:

Note: to watch the video comment by Mme Lagarde on Greek situation, please click on this link: (answer on Greece starts at 22’:22”). Otherwise, here’s official IMF transcript of it:

“I have always said that the Greek program has to walk on two legs: one is significant reforms and one is debt relief. If the pension [system] cannot be as significantly and substantially reformed as needed, we could need more debt relief on the other side. Equally, no [amount of debt relief] will make the pension system sustainable. For the financing of the pension system, the budget has to pay 10 percent of GDP. This is not sustainable. The average in Europe is 2.5 percent. It all needs to add up, but at the same time the pension system needs to be sustainable in the medium and long term. This requires taking short-term measures that will make it sustainable in the long term.

“I really don't like it when we are portrayed as the “draconian, rigorous terrible IMF.” We do not want draconian fiscal measures to apply to Greece, which have already made a lot of sacrifices. We have said that fiscal consolidation should not be excessive, so that the economy could work and eventually expand. But it needs to add up. And the pension system needs to be reformed, the tax collection needs to be improved so that revenue comes in and evasion is stopped. And the debt relief by the other Europeans must accompany that process.  We will be very attentive to  the sustainability of the reforms, to the fact that it needs to add up, and to walk on two legs. That will be our compass for Greece. But we want that country to succeed at the end of the day, but it has to succeed in real life, not on paper.”

Yep. Lots of good words and then there are those ungrateful Greeks who are just refusing to understand:

  1. How can Mme Lagarde insist that there’s a second leg (debt relief) where the EU already said, repeatedly, there is none? and
  2. How there can be sustainability to the Greek pensions reforms if there are actually people living on them day-to-day who may be unable to take a cut to their pay? Who's going to feed them? Care for them? On what money? Where has IMF published tests of proposed reforms with respect to their impact on pensioners?

Strangely, Mme Lagarde seems to be not that interested in answering either one of these concerns.