Greece’s public and private debt burden is just too large for the Greek economy to service, despite already squeezing Greek labour to the death – literally. The Greek public debt burden arose for two main reasons. Greek capitalism was so weak in the 1990s and the profitability of productive investment was so low, that Greek capitalists needed the Greek state to subsidise them through low taxes and exemptions and handouts to favoured Greek oligarchs. In return, Greek politicians got all the perks and tips that made them wealthy too This weak and corrupt Greek economy then joined the euro and the gravy train of EU funding was made available and German and French came along to buy up Greek companies and allow the government to borrow and spend.
The annual budget deficits and public debt rocketed under successive conservative and social democratic governments. These were financed by bond markets because German and French capital invested in Greek businesses and bought Greek government bonds that delivered a much better interest than their own. So Greek capitalism lived off the credit-fuelled boom of the 2000s that hid its real weaknesss.
But then came the global financial crash and the Great Recession. The Eurozone headed into slump and Eurozone banks and companies got into deep trouble. Suddenly a government with 120% of GDP debt and running a 15% of GDP annual deficit was no longer able to finance itself from the market and needed a ‘bailout’ from the rest of Europe.
But the bailout was not to help Greeks maintain the living standards and preserve public services during the slump. On the contrary, living standards and public services had to be cut to ensure that German and French banks got their bond money back and foreign investment in Greek industry was protected. So through the bailout programmes, foreign capital was more or less repaid in full, with the debt burden shifted onto the books of the Greek government, the Euro institutions and the IMF – in other words, taxpayers.
Greece was ultimately committed to meeting the costs of the reckless failure of Greek and Eurozone capital.The Troika’s plan was to make the Greeks pay at the expense of a 25% fall in GDP, a 40% drop in real incomes and pensions and 27% unemployment rate.
· The government deficit was turned into a ‘primary surplus’ within the shortest period of time by any modern government. Greece has reduced its fiscal deficit from 15.6 percent of GDP in 2009 to 2.5 percent in 2014, a scale of deficit reduction not seen anywhere else in the world.
· Total public sector employment declined from 907,351 in 2009 to 651,717 in 2014, a decline of over 255,000. That is a drop of over 25%.
· Greece has gone from one of the lowest average retirement ages to one of the highest. In this sense, Greece had undertaken the most significant pension reform in Europe even before the latest demands of the Troika.
This was austerity at its finest.But the horrible irony is that this policy failed. Far from recovering, the Greek capitalist economy went into a deep depression.…….That the debt cannot be repaid is now openly admitted by the IMF in its latest debt sustainability report on Greece (here). The IMF now recognises that it got its forecasts of recovery hopelessly wrong
….. Whether there is now a deal with the Troika or alternatively, Grexit, the Greek economy needs to grow. Only this can make any public or private debt burden disappear. Take the US. The US public sector debt is huge at nearly 100% of GDP. But the US can service that debt easily because it has nominal GDP growth of just 4% a year. And the interest costs on its debt are very low at just 3% a year. As growth is higher than the interest cost on the debt, the US government can run a deficit of taxes versus spending (before interest) of 1% of GDP a year, and its debt ratio will still stay stable (but not fall).
Greece, on the other hand, in 2011, had interest costs of over 4% on its debt and nominal GDP of -5% a year, so it needed a government surplus of 9% of GDP just to keep the debt from rising. The government was applying austerity but still a deficit. Even the small debt restructuring of 2012 in the second bailout program did not stop the rise in the debt ratio. It is still rising.