Recent Items

Yanis Varoufakis: Greek Success Story: The latest Orwellian Turn of the Greek Crisis

Posted on by

By Yanis Varoufakis, a professor of economics at the University of Athens. Cross-posted from his blog.

Greece’s Prime Minister recently flew to China, to woo Chinese investors. In his bid to be persuasive, he adopted a radical narrative: Greece is a Success Story. A country that almost perished in 2012 is now on the mend; on the road to stabilisation and growth; a wonderful opportunity, currently, for investors to pick up ultra cheap investments and to benefit from the forthcoming growth. How much of this is true, however?

Greek Prime Ministers and Finance Ministers have been upbeat for the past three catastrophic years. Mr Samaras’ narrative is, therefore, neither here nor there per se. Indeed, one may credibly argue that it is his job to put on a brave face and to be upbeat, especially when in a country like China where he is struggling to beat up some investments for his suffering country. However, what makes the Greek Success Story (GSS) narrative interesting is that the international press and the money markets seem to concur.

Six reasons are bandied about in support of GSS:

1. Yields of Greek government bonds have collapsed from 30% to 8% while two of the three credit rating agencies have upgraded the Greek state’s creditworthiness
2. The economy’s rate of shrinkage is falling
3. Wages have fallen drastically giving a major boost to Greek competitiveness
4. The government has managed, through an impressive series of cutbacks and tax hikes, to deliver a small but nevertheless significant primary budget surplus
5. The Athens stock exchange has doubled in value over the past few months
6. Greece’s banks are consolidating and are being recapitalised, with some help from international investors

Taken together, these six observations seem to support the GSS narrative. But do they? Let us look at them one at a time:

1. Yields of Greek government bonds have collapsed from 30% to 8% while two of the three credit rating agencies have upgraded the Greek state’s creditworthiness

All this is true. But it is also ridiculously irrelevant. Greece does not issue bonds. It is well and truly excluded from money market financing. The last ten-year bonds it issued for the purposes of financing the state were before May 2010. Since then, it issued a whole pack of them in March of 2012 as part of the so-called PSI; the massive haircut of the existing government bonds (except the ones that the ECB had already purchased – see here). The newly minted 2012 bonds were used to swap for the older ones; the ones that were being haircut. Each older bond was replaced by a new one with a face value almost half that of the older bond it replaced.

Even then Greece’s debt was unsustainable. So, last December we saw another haircut – that was euphimistically presented as a ‘debt buyback’. Whatever the intricacies of that operation, the gist of it was that the Greek state borrowed €11 billion from the ESM (European Stability Mechanism) in order to buy back most of those fresh, PSI-era, bonds at… 35% of their face value. By the end of that second haircut, only 13% of Greece’s debt remains in the form of government bonds in the hands of private sector investors. In summary, when the financial press talks about the ‘yields of Greece’s government bonds’, they are referring to this ultra-thin market of bond relics.

Still, why are these few remaining Greek bonds appreciating in value (and their yields are falling)? The answer is as simple as it is depressing: Because the markets have worked out (quiet correctly) that, while Greece’s public debt still remains unsustainable (despite the two haircuts in one year), the next time it is written down it will be the European taxpayer that gets hit – not the investors who still hold on to the few Greek government bonds left in the market. Put differently, when Europe re-visits the Greek debt issue, the headache from imposing another haircut on these privateers (who will threaten Greece with expensive hold-outs) will not be worthwhile given the meagre benefits in terms of debt reduction. Thus, markets expect that these bonds will be redeemed fully and Greece’s debt to the European Union (but not the ECB or the IMF) will be haircut instead.

In summary, there are excellent reasons why the Greek government bonds remaining in the hands of private investors are appreciating in value while everyone knows that the Greek state remains hopelessly bankrupt.

2. The economy’s rate of shrinkage is falling

When political prisoners go on hunger strike, during the first week they lose a considerable proportion of their body weight. As the weeks pass, the rate of diminution in their weight drops. On the week of their death, if they continue to the bitter end, the rate of shrinkage is at its lowest, as they is precious little fat and muscle to be lost. This is precisely what is happening to the Greek economy.

3. Wages have fallen drastically giving a major boost to Greek competitiveness and thus heralding an investment boom

Wages have fallen sharply and labour unit costs have followed suit. The question however is: Is this a reason for investors, Greek or foreign, to loosen up their purse-strings and go on an investment spree? That investors like to see wages fall, there is no doubt. But does this suffice? Most certainly not. There are only two reasons for investing in the productive sectors of a country like Greece presently: One is if you think that, in addition to the falling labour costs, there will be effective demand for the goods and services domestically. There is no reason to expect this for Greece any time in the foreseeable future, since both the private and the public sector are continuing to deleverage. (The fact that prices are hardly falling, at a time of collapsing wages, signals a precipitoys fall in domestic demand.) A second reason is to believe that goods and services can be produced in Greece (taking advantage of the falling costs) for the purposes of exporting them. There is very little scope for this either, since the rest of Europe is recessionary and, more importantly, excess capacity exists elsewhere so that, if there is a boost in demand outside of Greece, production can be cranked up at minimal start-up cost to cover it in countries like Germany and the Netherlands. The only exception to that is tourism in which it may make sense for smart investors to buy cheaply some boutique hotels or even resorts and take advantage of the collapse of Egypt’s tourist industry in the context of the Eastern Mediterranean market. However, such investments will make next to no difference to Greece’s macro-economy since the funds imported to purchase the properties are most likely to be exported immediately by the former owners and new investment/jobs will be negligible.

In summary, the Greek government’s own statistical agency tells us that in 2012 investment fell by 20% from the already ridiculously low levels of fixed capital investment in 2011. Moreover, the government is predicting a further fall in investment in 2013. The investment boom that is talked about is, therefore, a figment of someone’s imagination at best or a piece of vile propaganda more likely

4. The government has managed, through an impressive series of cutbacks and tax hikes, to deliver a small but nevertheless significant primary budget surplus

This is also true. The state has reneged on its obligations to cancer patients, school children, the elderly and the infirm, its own suppliers (who are owed billions for supplies and services delivered long ago), small businesses which receive VAT rebates with many months delay, etc. Now, all that would have been understandable if the government’s task were to create, however brutally, a primary surplus in order to bolster its bargaining position with the troika, giving itself the opportunity to survive without the troika’s loans during a period of tough negotiations. But the government is not interested in the slightest in playing tough with the troika. Only with its own people, trying to impress the troika with its ruthlessness within. Even though everyone knows that these primary surpluses, built on what I call ‘blood money’, cannot be the basis for Greece to repay its loans to the troika (requiring another write down of Greece’s public debt), the Athens government is pretending it can repay everything in this manner. (See here for a recent example.)

In summary, the reported primary surpluses, built on blood money as they are, cannot be thought of seriously as a sign that Greece has returned to public debt sustainability.

5. The Athens stock exchange has doubled in value over the past few months

So it has, alongside all stock exchanges around the world who seem determined to ‘go it alone’; to climb inexorable QE-fuelled heights in response to the news that the real economy is… faltering, stuttering, stumbling. In the case of Greece, there is of course another, important twofold element: Germany’s decision (a) not to amputate Greece from the Eurozone and (b) not to allow a proper probe in Greece’s banks (in fear of what it would show and of the potential knock on effect of such probes in the realm of Germany’s own Bankruptocracy). These two ‘signals’ have caused Athens’ stock exchange (which was almost annihilated last year) to double its value – to thelevel it had reache back in… 1995. The only genuine improvement, that adds to the rally, concerns three large monopolistic companies that have managed to regain access to international finance through a bond issue. This is of course due to (i) the removal of the immediate threat that their assets will be converted to drachmas and (ii) their monopolistic position in Greece, that guarantees them a profit stream.

In summary, the recent rise of Athens’ stock exchange is utterly devoid of any signs regarding an improvement in Greece’s economy.

6. Greece’s banks are consolidating and are being recapitalised, with some help from international investors

This is the grossest and most monstrous of all hyperbolae regarding GSS. Greece’s banks are huge black holes, the epitome of zombie-banks. They need at least €150 billion to be properly recapitalised but only €35 is available (after last December’s ‘debt buyback’ operation ate into the recap fund to be provided by the ESM). In addition, Greece’s bankers are jostling for position, pulling political strings and entering into unsavoury deals with our wider Cleptocracy, so as to remain in control of ‘their’ banks, at the expense of course of the banks’ capacity to borrow and to lend. See here for a whiff of the coalescence of Bankruptocracy and Cleptocracy that delivers a banking system which acts as a dead weight on Greece’s private and household sector, pushing Greece’s social economy deeper and further into a mire.

In summary, Greece’s banking sector remains a black hole that destroys any source of dynamism within the country’s social economy. The recapitalisation will prove a certain failure while the consolidations are effected with the sole criterion of bolstering the social and economic power of certain ‘bankers’ who want to use it in order to extract rents from the rest of Greek society. To speak of Greece’s banking sector as a source of ‘good news’ for Greece is to molest the truth and to insult the intelligence of Europe’s taxpayers (who are providing Greece’s bankers with the funds that allow them to ‘pretend and extend’ at the expense of Greece’s economy).

Epilogue

For three years now, Greece’s establishment regime is attempting to convince the world, and the Greek people, that all is well in the best of all possible worlds. The difference now is that the international press seems to be buying this propaganda. Speaking personally, I am tired of having to counter ‘good news’ stories with analyses like the above for four long years now. I wish I could also rejoice in the ‘good news’. Alas, it remains our moral duty to knock down ‘good news’ stories the purpose of which is to propagate narratives the explicit purpse of which is to impede policy changes that may bring us genuinely good news.

Print Friendly
Twitter21DiggReddit0StumbleUpon0Facebook35LinkedIn3Google+0bufferEmail

27 comments

  1. Max424

    Yanis V: “When political prisoners go on hunger strike, during the first week they lose a considerable proportion of their body weight. As the weeks pass, the rate of diminution in their weight drops. On the week of their death, if they continue to the bitter end, the rate of shrinkage is at its lowest, as they is precious little fat and muscle to be lost.”

    “This is precisely what is happening to the Greek economy.”

    Brilliant. My nominee for metaphor of the year.

    1. MacCruiskeen

      Is it? It metaphorically suggests that the Greeks have undertaken this as a deliberate protest and could relieve themselves of it any time, but choose not to out of ideological necessity. So it is really a badly mixed metaphor–for the politicians who chose the path, it is collaboration, not protest, and for the starving protesters, it is not a deliberate choice they can willingly back away from.

      1. Massinissa

        Instead of mentioning a hunger strike at all, it should have been, say, someone starving in a wasteland or a desert.

        That would have been a superior metaphor.

        As you say, mentioning the hunger strike comes with some baggage the author did not intend.

        1. scraping_by

          On the other hand, famine is often the work of nature. A political prisoner is the innocent victim of human malice.

          Of the two, there’s no doubt Greece is suffering from human actions. Nothing fell from the sky, so remember people chose this course for the Greeks.

      2. Alejandro

        Whether it’s fasting or hunger, the effects on the body are the same. The effect on the economy makes it a very strong metaphor.
        Hunger has a long history as a military strategy and austerity is its financial sibling.

  2. The Dork of Cork.

    I have come to the conclusion that it is simply a method of financial war.

    Destroy the natural stock & flow dynamics of a country which depends on a physical economy for income (cashflow) and financial capitals can pick up the crumbs so as to charge rent on the remaining rump economy.
    Its becoming shocking for even a cynical sod such as myself.

    I keep asking myself what is this place ?

    The simple objective is to buy life support for rentiers even if this means the epic destruction of real physical & human capital.

  3. Chris Engel

    Strong starvation imagery.

    I’m eager to see how things play out into the winter, where the analogy comes to a head.

    It feels as though we’re on the cusp of something in the anti-austerity struggle.

  4. Charis

    All this makes it more and more clear to me what all the story is about.It is about to make black look white and whilte looking black.The economical basic knowledge tells any sane person that austerity in times of crisis is the worst thing you can do.

    Now greece will be sold as the “evidence” that austerity in a developed country works and a country “can grow”.And ofcourse it is not greece which is the main target.It is the big countries like germany or france which are right now entering the crisis.Better said entering the crisis again after 2008.

    The “double dip” in these big countries was ofcourse foreseeable and I fear that greece was just the test-bed and will be also the “role model” how to get “out of the crisis” in the next years.No body will tell the people that you cant compare small.little wannabe economies like greece,ireland or portugal to huge economies like the USA or germany.The whole show is about “making impressions” and stupid neoliberal propaganda.

    Dont believe this.

  5. Javagold

    When things get really bad. It’s OK to lie. It’s for their own good.

    They truly believe this.

  6. Paul W

    One thing establishment types can do is point out that if things are really as bad as some make them out to be then why are the people taking it? Why have they not risen up in armed revolt if matters are that desperate? As someone outside the crisis nations, I ask myself the same thing. The simple fact is that until you get revolution the elites shall continue to do and say whatever they like. Perhaps, like domesticated sheep, armed violence is beyond citizens of western society? In which case the battle is already lost and everyone must fend for themselves. Is there a tipping point when people are finally pushed too far? They’ve actually stolen or denied people free access to their money in Cyprus and still nothing. Maybe there is no such thing as going too far and the elites know it?

    One thing is certain: these criminals running all our countries have to go. I don’t care if it is via the guillotine or exile. I don’t care if they take all their ill gotten gains with them or we recover all they’ve tried to steal. I also don’t care if they go during a complete economic collapse or in a nihliistic explosion of rage. They must go before their is any hope of fixing society. So long as criminals run things it will never get better. If you want to do it via peaceful elections then good luck to you. But shouldn’t people’s children’s and grandchildren’s futures be worth fighting for?

    1. Rakhematov

      This is a very profound comment. The reality is that the tools of social control are now so good that revolution is no longer practical. Data mining, social networks analysis, debt peonage, no fly and other lists, anti-terrorist legislation, communication monitoring, why go on?

      The elite knows it and so do the non-elite. What ever happened to the Occupy movement? The authorities have learned to deal with non-violent protest.

      Face it: We’re stuck.

      1. scraping_by

        We’re stuck not with the ‘tools’ of oppression, but they’re able to find people to use those tools.

        As long as the elite can find people pathetic enough to commit violence on those like themselves as a job, they’re in. It’s when the thugs get smart they’re in trouble.

        Most of successful regime changes have begun when the soldiers refused to shoot demonstrators. The lie of oppression as nobility is even now wearing thin.

      2. pws

        When I feel sad, I read about the Ceausescus, that perks me right up. It can happen because it has happened. What it will take? That I don’t know.

        1. p78

          To Ceausescus it had happened because the Secret Security Service and the Army switched sides later, after participating in the repression first.
          Will the Pentagon and the Dept.of Homeland Security side with the people?

          1. Don't Tell Him Pike

            If consumer desires and aspirations completely collapse and become drastically scaled down to basic needs and wants in the major Western economies, which are probably the most socially diverse and complex societies, I think significant and ground breaking social protest and resistance will quickly take root.

            I don’t think monitoring social network sites will not be enough to stop the groundswell then.

    2. bc123a

      Well, the reason “people have not risen” is simple. The “blood money” author talks about is a very clever tactics of hiding the deepening losses at places where they are not visible, or, more importantnly, concentrated. Non-payment of bond coupons would be a big event, non-payment of drugs and VAT refunds can be hidden for some time (until suddenly some statiatics show that for example, cancer just became significantly more deadly disease in greece, or that for “unknown” reasons the small business are dying in droves, during “recovery”).

  7. MrColdWaterOfRealityMan

    Revolt will happen when enough people are in sufficient pain and can no longer get cheap food, cheap drugs and cheap enertainment. It can be triggered suddenly in the case of a monetary disaster (i.e. deflation or hyperinflation, or both), war, which cuts off oil supplies suddenly, or gradually over the next 20 years as the available energy from oil, gas and coal dwindles and becomes expensive enough to create multiple supply chain breakdowns.

    It will not be pretty. It will probably not improve very much, if anything.

    1. Yves Smith

      Your thesis is disproven by the Greek example. Cheap food? Cheap entertainment? Old people who can afford groceries are regularly being stolen from when they leave grocery stories. The hospitals are falling apart. They can’t afford many basic medicines and even reasonable sanitation. Sheets are being reused. And entertainment? Fuggedaboudit.

  8. Brooklin Bridge

    The reality is that the tools of social control are now so good that revolution is no longer practical. Data mining, social networks analysis, debt peonage, no fly and other lists, anti-terrorist legislation, communication monitoring, why go on?

    I love how they have gotten people to actually pay for, never mind clamor for, and DEMAND privacy stripping and control from above. IPhones, SnapShot, FaceBook, the cloud and we can sell your data to anyone contracts and on and on. People can’t get enough of it and it can’t be made intrusive enough fast enough.

    One of the bleakest things I have ever seen is the comment sections of virtually any main stream media articles on civil liberty issues. The recent HuffPo articles on the Obama administration’s intimidation/intelligence gathering scandals are an excellent case in point.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      The above was supposed to be a sub comment to @Rakhematov’s comment (which I quoted a part of).

    2. Massinissa

      Im pretty much the only person in my age cohort (im 21) that doesnt have a facebook…

      And I feel good about it still.

      Worried that Employers will get red flags when they look for one and dont see one though.

      Since employers want people to have facebooks, its almost social coercion to sign onto this private service that mines your information. And that truly disturbs me.

      1. Ed S.

        Nor do I have a Facebook account (and I’m bettter twice your age – found the entire concept creepy).

        But if you’re concerned about employers using FB as part of the selection process, then just create one and populate it with crap that looks good (a “padded” FB page — is this a business opportunity like “consultants” preparing college applications?)

      2. Brooklin Bridge

        I believe the act of creating a Facebook page gives Facebook the right to intrude in user activity that doesn’t even take place on the users facebook page. It’s nasty.

        You might look into using alternate search engines such as DuckDuckGo.com or IXquick rather than Google, if you havn’t already, for searches.

        As to Facebook for conformity at work, consider creating an account on Linkedin which is (or was) more for professionals. They are (or were) less obnoxious than Facebook and should satisfy your company that you’re not some sleeping terrorist communist socialist sympathizer who might even have voted for someone as far to the ultra extreme radical left as Dwight D. Eisenhower.

  9. Jim Haygood

    ‘While Greece’s public debt still remains unsustainable (despite the two haircuts in one year), the next time it is written down it will be the European taxpayer that gets hit – not the investors who still hold on to the few Greek government bonds left in the market. Markets expect that these bonds will be redeemed fully and Greece’s debt to the European Union (but not the ECB or the IMF) will be haircut instead.’

    Varoufakis may be right … but the market might be wrong. Given that official lenders still refuse to accept haircuts, why would private lenders expect to receive seniority over government lenders when crisis returns?

  10. Generalfeldmarschall Von Hindenburg

    Who is the dog n pony show supposed to impress? China? The Chinese must be laughing behind their hands. Is it put on to give institutional investment managers an excuse to put pension funds into another black hole? Making a killing in management fees while also gutting pensioners accounts when the next big bump hits? Greece won’t have growth again in the next decade at least.

  11. allcoppedout

    The weight of the klepto-oligarchs is on us all. It’s time we realised they are no more than the Jabberwock beyond the city gates that must be fed.

  12. Amit Chokshi

    All the professor has done is reinforce a very strong case to be bullish on certain Greek plays, the banking sector recap for Alpha Bank and Natl Bank of Greece for example look like spectacular risk/rewards over the next <3 years.

Comments are closed.