A visit to Greece leaves many vivid impressions. There are, of course, the country’s rich history, abundance of archeological sites, azure skies and crystalline seas. But there is also the intense pressure under which Greek society is now functioning — and the extraordinary courage with which ordinary citizens are coping with economic disaster.
Inevitably, a visit also leaves questions. In particular, what should policymakers have done differently in confronting the country’s financial crisis?
The critical policy mistakes were those committed at the outset of the crisis. It was already clear in the first half of 2010, when Greece lost access to financial markets, that the public debt was unsustainable. The country’s sovereign debt should have been restructured without delay.
Had Greece quickly written down its debt burden by two-thirds, it would have been able to shed its crushing debt overhang. It could have used a portion of the interest savings to recapitalize the banks. It could have cut taxes, rather than raising them. It could have jump-started investment and gotten its economy moving again, if not in a matter of months, then, with luck, in no more than a year.
In its official post-mortem on the crisis, the International Monetary Fund now agrees that debt restructuring should have been undertaken earlier. But this was not its view at the time. Under the leadership of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF was in thrall to the French and German governments, which adamantly opposed debt relief.
The European Commission, for its part, has rejected the IMF’s mea culpa. Preoccupied by the state of the French and German banks, it continues to argue that delaying debt restructuring was the right thing to do. It has no regrets about throwing Greece to the wolves.
Given this opposition, the Greek government would have had to move unilaterally. Hindsight suggests that the authorities should have done just that. Faced with foreign opposition, the government should have announced its decision to restructure as a fait accompli.
Clearly, there would have been risks. The “troika” — the IMF, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank — might have refused to provide an aid package, forcing Greece to compress imports even more sharply.
The ECB might have cut off emergency liquidity assistance, forcing the government to impose capital controls and even consider abandoning the euro.
But by acting preemptively, Greek leaders could have shaped the dialogue. They could have said to their EU colleagues: “Look, we have no choice but to restructure what is clearly an unsustainable debt. But make no mistake, our preference is to remain in the eurozone. We are committed to reforms. Given this, don’t you agree that we are deserving of your support?”
Making a compelling case would have required Greece to get serious about those reforms. The government could have started by bringing together employers and unions to negotiate an equitable burden-sharing agreement, including an across-the-board reduction in wages and pensions, thereby getting a jump on internal devaluation. This could then have been complemented by a simultaneous agreement to restructure private debts. With everyone accepting sacrifices, it might have been possible to reach an accord on liberalizing closed professions and on comprehensive tax reform.
Instead of working together with its social partners, the government, heeding the troika’s advice, dismantled the country’s collective-bargaining system, leaving workers unrepresented. Greece thus lacked a mechanism to negotiate a social compact to cut wages, pensions and other obligations in an equitable way. With every vested interest fighting for itself, closed professions proved impossible to pry open. Doubting that there would be shared sacrifice, those same interest groups were unable to negotiate meaningful tax reform.
With the Greek government thus failing to push through structural reforms, it was unable to earn the trust of its creditors; and, skeptical that the government was committed to reform, the troika demanded a pound of flesh, in the form of front-loaded austerity, as the price of assistance. Those front-loaded tax increases and government-spending cuts plunged the economy deeper into recession, making a farce of claims that the public debt was sustainable — and forcing the inevitable debt restructuring after two more agonizing years.
Greece is now seeking to make the best of a difficult situation. It is attempting to breathe life into the campaign for structural reform. It is lobbying the troika for further debt relief. But the damage will not be easily undone. Past mistakes, committed not just by Greece, but also by its international partners, make a difficult short-term future unavoidable.
It is important that other countries draw the right lessons. If they do, Greece’s brave, beleaguered citizens can at least take comfort in knowing that many people elsewhere will be spared the same unnecessary sacrifices.
Barry Eichengreen is a professor of economics and political science at the University of California, Berkeley. © 2013 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)