It was never going to be an easy meeting with all that bad blood between Yanis Varoufakis and his colleagues, but with Greek banks showing signs they cant withstand deposit flight much longer and time for a deal running dangerously short, all eyes were on yesterday’s Eurogroup meeting in Luxembourg.
The Greek Finance Minister said Greece had put a "radical proposal" for budget monitoring on the table to show its willingness to reach a deal, and accused his European peers of being dangerously close to accepting "an accident", saying they had refused to discuss his idea for braking public spending.
Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, said there was an urgent need for dialogue “with adults in the room”. Earlier in an move signaling her anger at Alexis Tsipras' claim this week that the IMF has "criminal responsibility" for the damage caused to the Greek economy, she uttered "the criminal in chief comes to say hello" as soon as Varoufakis entered the meeting room.
The Luxembourg talks broke down within an hour of discussions on the Greek crisis with Yanis Varoufakis talking for half of it. He then left the eurogroup meeting, telling reporters only that “I think I’ve spoken enough today.... go home and rest”
What he said
Late at night Varoufakis chose to blog his intervention at the Eurogroup meeting as “the only antidote to propaganda and malicious ‘leaks’ is transparency. After so much disinformation on my presentation at the Eurogroup of the Greek government’s position, the only response is to post the precise words uttered within. Read them and judge for yourselves whether the Greek government’s proposals constitute a basis for agreement”. So here goes...
Five months ago, in my very first Eurogroup intervention, I put it to you that the new Greek government faced a dual task:
We had to earn a precious currency without depleting an important capital good.
The precious currency we had to earn was a sense of trust, here, amongst our European partners and within the institutions. To mint that precious currency would necessitate a meaningful reform package and a credible fiscal consolidation plan.
As for the important capital we could not afford to deplete, that was the trust of the Greek people who would have to swing behind any agreed reform program that will end the Greek crisis. The prerequisite for that capital not to be depleted was, and remains, one: tangible hope that the agreement we bring back with us to Athens:
is the last to be hammered out under conditions of crisis;
comprises a reform package which ends the 6-year-long uninterrupted recession;
does not hit the poor savagely like the previous reforms did;
renders our debt sustainable thus creating genuine prospects of Greece’s return to the money markets, ending our undignified reliance on our partners to repay the loans we have received from them.
Five months have gone by, the end of the road is nigh, but this finely balancing act has failed to materialise. Yes, at the Brussels Group we have come close. How close? On the fiscal side the positions are truly close, especially for 2015. For 2016 the remaining gap amounts to 0.5% of GDP. We have proposed parametric measures of 2% versus the 2.5% that the institutions insist upon. This 0.5% gap we propose to bridge over by administrative measures. It would be, I submit to you, a major error to allow such a minuscule difference to cause massive damage to the Eurozone’s integrity. Convergence had also been achieved on a wide range of issues.
Nevertheless, I will not deny that our proposals have not instilled in you the trust that you need. And, at the same time, the institutions’ proposals that Mr Juncker conveyed to PM Tsipras cannot engender the hope that our citizens need. Thus, we have come close to an impasse.
At this, the 11th hour, stage of the negotiations, before uncontrollable events take over, we have a moral duty, let alone a political and an economic one, to overcome this impasse. This is no time for recriminations and accusations. European citizens will hold collectively responsible all those of us who failed to strike a viable solution.
Even if some, misguided by rumours that a Greek exit may not be so terrible or that it may even benefit the rest of the Eurozone, are resigned to such an event, it is an event that will unleash destructive powers no one can tame. Citizens from all over Europe will target not the institutions but their elected finance ministers, their Prime Ministers and Presidents. After all, they elected us to promote Europe’s shared prosperity and to avoid pitfalls that may harm Europe.
Our political mandate is to find an honourable, workable compromise. Is it so difficult to do so? We do not think so. A few days ago Olivier Blanchard, the IMF’s Chief Economist published a piece entitled ‘Greece: A Credible Deal Will Require Difficult Decisions by All Sides.’ He is right, the three operative words being ‘by all sides’. Dr Blanchard added that: “At the core of the negotiations is a simple question. How much of an adjustment has to be made by Greece, how much has to be made by its official creditors?”
The Greek economy
That Greece needs to adjust there is no doubt. The question, however, is not how much adjustment Greece needs to make. It is, rather, what kind of adjustment. If by ‘adjustment’ we mean fiscal consolidation, wage and pension cuts, and tax rate increases, it is clear we have done more of that than any other country in peacetime.
The public sector’s structural, or cyclically adjusted, fiscal deficit turned into a surplus on the back of a ‘world record beating’ 20% adjustment
Wages fell by 37%
Pensions were reduced by up to 48%
State employment diminished by 30%
Consumer spending was curtailed by 33%
Even the nation’s chronic current account deficit dropped by 16%.
No one can say that Greece has not adjusted to its new, post-2008, circumstances. But what we can say is that gigantic adjustment, whether necessary or not, has produced more problems than it solved:
Aggregate real GDP fell by 27% while nominal GDP continued to fall quarter-in-quarter-out for 18 quarters non-stop to this day
Unemployment skyrocketed to 27%
Undeclared labour reached 34%
Banks are labouring under non-performing loans that exceed 40% in value
Public debt has exceeded 180% of GDP
Young well-qualified people are abandoning Greece in droves
Poverty, hunger and energy deprivation have registered increases usually associated with a state at war
Investment in productive capacity has evaporated.
So, the first part of Dr Blanchard’s question “how much of an adjustment has to be made by Greece?” needs to be answered: Greece needs a great deal of adjustment. But not of the same kind that we have had in the past. We need more reforms not more cutbacks. For instance,
We need to adjust to a new culture of paying taxes, not to higher VAT rates that strengthen the incentive to cheat and drive law-abiding citizens into greater poverty
We need to make the pension system sustainable by eradicating unpaid labour, minimising early retirements, eliminating pension fund fraud, boosting employment – not by eradicating the solidarity tranche from the lowest of the low of pensions, as the institutions have demanded, thus pushing the poorest of the poor into greater poverty and conjuring up massive popular hostility against another set of so called reforms
In our proposals to the institutions we have offered:
An extensive (but optimised) privatisation agenda spanning the period 2015-2025
The creation of a fully independent Tax and Customs Authority (under the aegis and supervision of Parliament)
A Fiscal Council that oversees the state budget
A short-term program for limiting foreclosures and managing non-performing loans
Judicial and civil procedure code reforms
Liberalising several product markets and services (with protections for middle class values and professions that are part and parcel of society’s fabric)
Elimination of many nuisance charges
Public administration reforms (introducing proper staff evaluation systems, reducing non-wage costs, modernising and unifying public sector payrolls).
In addition to these reforms the Greek Authorities have engaged the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to help Athens design, implement and monitor a second series of reforms. Yesterday I met with the OECD’s Secretary General Mr Angel Gurria and his team to announce this joint reform agenda, complete with a specific roadmap:
A major Anti-corruption Drive and relevant institutions to support it – especially in the area of procurement
Liberalising the construction sector, including the market and standards of construction materials
Wholesale trade liberalisation
Media – electronic and press code of practice
One-Stop Business Centres that eradicate the bureaucratic impediments to doing business in Greece
Pension System Reform – where the emphasis is on a proper, long-term, actuarial study, the phasing out of early retirements, the reduction in the operating costs of the pensions funds, pension fund consolidation – rather than mere pension cuts.
Yes, colleagues, Greeks need to adjust further. We desperately need deep reforms. But, I urge you to take seriously under consideration this important difference between:
reforms that attack parasitic, rent-seeking behaviour or inefficiencies, and
parametric changes that jack up tax rates and reduce benefits to the weakest.
We need a lot more of the real reforms and a lot less of the parametric type.
Much has been said and written about our ‘backtracking’ on labour market reform and our determination to re-introduce protection for waged workers through collective bargaining agreements. Is this some left-wing fixation of ours that jeopardises efficiency? No, colleagues, it is not. Take for example the plight of young workers in several chain stores who get fired as they approach their 24th birthday so that the employer hires younger workers in their place to avoid paying them the normal minimum wage which is lower for employees under the age of 24. Or take the case of employees who are hired part time for 300 euros a month, made to work full time and threatened with dismissal if they complain. Without collective bargaining, these abuses abound with ill effects on competition (as decent employers compete at a disadvantage with unscrupulous ones) but also with ill effects on pension funds and public revenues. Does anyone seriously think that the introduction of well-thought out collective bargaining, in collaboration with the ILO and the OECD, constitutes ‘reform reversal’, an example of ‘backtracking’?
Turning briefly to pensions again, much has been made of the fact that pensions account for more than they did in the past; as much as 16% of GDP. But consider this: Pensions have shrunk by 40% and the number of pensioners is stable. So, expenditure on pensions has fallen, not risen. That 16% of GDP is due not to spending more on pensions but, instead, to the dramatic drop in GDP which brought with it a similarly dramatic reduction in contributions due to the fall in employment and the rise of undeclared labour.
Our alleged backtracking on ‘pension reforms’ is that we have suspended the further reduction in pensions that have already lost 40% of their value when the prices of the goods and services that pensioners need, e.g. pharmaceuticals, have hardly moved. Consider this relatively unknown fact: Around 1 million families survive today on the meagre pension of a grandfather or a grandmother as the rest of the family members are unemployed in a country where only 9% of the unemployed receive any unemployment benefit. Cutting that one, solitary pension is tantamount to turning a family into the streets.
This is why we keep telling the institutions that, yes, we need pension reform but, no, you cannot just lob off 1% of GDP from pensions without causing massive, fresh misery and a fresh recessionary round as this 1.8 billion multiplied by a large fiscal multiplier (up to 1.5) is withdrawn from the circular flow of income. If large pensions still existed, whose curtailment would make a fiscal difference, we would do it. But the distribution of pensions is so compressed that savings of such a magnitude would have to eat into the pensions of the poorest. It is for this reason, I suppose, that the institutions are asking us to eliminate the solidarity pensions supplement to the poorest of the poor. And it is for this reason that we counter-propose proper reforms: a drastic reduction, almost elimination, of early retirements, consolidation of pension funds and interventions in the labour market that reduce undeclared labour.
Structural reforms promote growth potential. But mere cutbacks in an economy like Greece’s promote recession. Greece must adjust by introducing genuine reforms. But at the same time, going back to Dr Blanchard’s answer, the institutions need to adjust their definition of growth-enhancing reforms – to acknowledge that parametric cuts and tax hikes are not reforms and that, at least in the case of Greece, they have undermined growth.
Colleagues have remarked in the past, and may do so again, that our pensions are too high compared to their older people and that it is unacceptable for the Greek government to expect them to foot our pension bill. Let me be clear on this: We are never going to ask you to subsidise our state, our wages, our pensions, our public expenditure. The Greek state lives within its means. Over the past five months we have even managed, despite zero market access and zero disbursements, to repay our creditors. We intend to keep doing so.
I understand that there are concerns that our government may slip into a primary deficit again and that this is the reason the institutions are pressing us to accept large VAT rises and large pension cuts. While it is our view that the announcement of a viable agreement will suffice to boost economic activity sufficiently to produce a healthy primary surplus, I understand perfectly well that our creditors and partners may have cause to be sceptical to want safeguards; an insurance policy against our government’s possible slide into profligacy. This is what lies behind Dr Blanchard’s call for the Greek government to offer “truly credible measures.” So here comes an idea. A “truly credible measure”.
Instead of arguing over half a percentage point of measures (or on whether these tax measures will have to all of the parametric type or not), how about a deeper, more comprehensive, permanent reform? An automated hard deficit brake that is legislated and monitored by the independent Fiscal Council we and the institutions have already agreed upon. The Fiscal Council would monitor the state budget’s execution on a weekly basis, issue warnings if a minimum primary surplus target looks like being violated and, at some point, trigger automated across the board, horizontal, reductions in all outlays in order to prevent the slide below the pre-agreed threshold. That way a failsafe system is in place that ensures the solvency of the Greek state while the Greek government retains the policy space it needs in order to remain sovereign and able to govern within a democratic context. Consider this to be a firm proposal that our government will implement immediately after an agreement.
Given that our government will never again need to borrow from your taxpayers or from the taxpayers standing behind the IMF, there is no sense in a debate between member-states that compete on whose pensioners are poorer, instigating a race-to-the-bottom. Instead, the debate moves on to debt repayments. How large should our primary surpluses be? Does anyone seriously believe that the growth rate is independent of the primary target set? The IMF understands fully that the two numbers are linked endogenously and that this is the reason why Greece’s public debt must be looked at at once.
Our large debt overhang should be thought of as a large unfunded tax liability. While it is true that the EFSF and GLF slices of our debt are long-dated and the interest rate is not large, the Greek state’s unfunded tax liability, our debt, features a lumpy component that impedes investment and recovery today. I am referring here to the 27 billion of SMP bonds still held by the ECB. This is a short-dated unfunded liability that potential investors in Greece take a look at it and turn back because they can see the funding gap this part of the debt creates instantly and because they recognise that this lump of 27 billion on the ECB books stop Greece from taking advantage of the ECB’s quantitative easing at the very moment when this program is unfolding and is reaching its maximum capacity to come to the aid of countries buffeted by deflation. It is a cruel irony that the country most afflicted by deflation is the one that is excluded from the ECB’s anti-deflation remedy. And it is excluded because of this 27 billion lump.
We propose no new monies
Our proposal on this front is simple, efficient and mutually beneficial. We propose no new monies, not one fresh euro, for our state. Imagine the following three-part agreement to be announced in the next few days:
Part 1: Deep reforms, including the automated hard deficit brake that I mentioned.
Part 2: A rationalisation of Greece’s debt repayment schedule along the following lines. First, to effect an SMP BUY-BACK Greece acquires a new loan from the ESM, then purchases the SMP bonds back from the ECB and retires them. To underpin this loan, we agree that the deep reform agenda is the common conditionality for successfully completing the current program and for securing the new ESM arrangement that comes into operation immediately afterwards and runs concurrently with the continuing IMF program until the end of March 2016. Short-term funding relies on the outstanding disbursement from the current program and medium to long term funding is completed by the return of the SMP profits, coming up to 9 billion out of the 27 remaining billions, which go into an escrow account to be used in order to meet Greece’s repayments to the IMF.
Part 3: An investment program for kick-starting the Greek economy funded by the Juncker Plan, the European Investment Bank – with which we are in talks already – the EBRD and other partners who will be invited to participate also in conjunction with our privatization program and the establishment of a development bank that aims at developing, reforming and collateralizing public assets, including real estate.
Does anyone truly doubt that this three-part announcement would dramatically change the mood, inspire Greeks to work hard on hope of a better future, invite investors to a country whose asset prices have fallen so dramatically, and give confidence to Europeans that Europe can, even at the 11th hour, do the right thing?
Colleagues, at this juncture it is dangerously easy to think that nothing can be done. Let us not fall prey to this state of mind. We can forge a good agreement. Our government is standing by, with ideas and with the determination to cultivate the two forms of trust necessary to end the Greek drama: Your trust in us and the trust of our people in Europe’s capacity to produce policies that work for, and not against, them.