So the IMF decided to publish its views on the size and path of Greek budget surpluses. In a nutshell, it still thinks that only a 1.5% primary surplus target is credible in the long-run and even that target must be accompanied by «growth-enhancing» budget reforms, including a lower tax-free income threshold and a reduction in pensions in order to lower state transfers to the public pension system.
Yet if Europeans and the Greek government «agree» on a higher surplus target (the 3.5% target agreed by the recent Eurogroup meeting) then the latter has to legislate measures upfront in order to make that commitment credible.
My first comment is to state the obvious fact that there really doesn’t exist any sort of «agreement» between the Greek government and its European partners. Rather, European countries would like to avoid any actual debt relief and thus will demand higher surplus targets than those that are reasonable from an economic standpoint. It is quite obvious that the Greek government is the weak side of this bargain and, as long as the IMF thinks that any target above 1.5% does not make economic sense, it should pressure the Europeans (who are the strong side in this debate) into accepting deeper debt relief, instead of standing ready to work with any surplus target they demand from the Greek side.
The IMF cannot claim to be a neutral technocratic institution and yet sign-off budget balance targets which it clearly believes to be unrealistic from a technical point of view only because they seem to be the only ones «politically acceptable».
Turning to the specific details of the IMF analysis, there are a couple of points to be made.
The IMF believes that the tax-free income threshold is quite high in the Greek case, which results in more than half of the wage earners to be exempt from income taxes (while the Eurozone average is close to 8%):
Its proposal is to lower that threshold significantly in order to be able to reduce the «high marginal tax rates». My objections are two-fold: First, the IMF does not insist on such a reduction in order to strengthen the revenues of the social safety net and lower the tax rates of middle-income wage earners. Rather, it would like to see the additional revenue being used in reducing the tax rates of high-income earners (which stand at more than 50% if the solidarity tax is taken into account). Thus it is actually proposing a post-tax income redistribution from the low-income earners to the top. In the IMF view such a redistribution will be «growth-enhancing» although I personally fail to understand how its effects will be anything else but contractionary, at least in the short-term, since it will by definition redistribute income from persons with a low saving rate to individuals with a higher saving rate.
Moreover, Greece displays one of the highest «risk of poverty» rates in the Eurozone which is close to 36% (and is actually even higher for people 16-54 years old) as well as a significantly high Gini index. As a result, a reduction of the income threshold, especially if it is not used to strengthen the social safety net significantly, will result in a rise of the post-tax poverty rate and income inequality with ambiguous medium/long-term growth effects.
The second point of the IMF is that Greece makes budgetary transfers to the pension system that are many times higher than the rest of Europe, at 11% of GDP compared to 2¼ for the Eurozone.
Although it is difficult to deny that the Greek pension system is expensive, unequal and in need of reform, it is still true that the above analysis does not take the state of the economy into account. According to the latest Eurostat figures, Greece still posts an output gap of -10.5% compared to only -1% for the whole of the Euro area. As a result, a large part of the budget transfers to the pension system are not structural but cyclical, due to the high unemployment level (close to 25%) and the significant incidence of part-time, low-paying jobs for the individuals who are actually employed.
Based on the latest statistics for wage earners (March 2016), the part-time employment share is 29% (532 thousand persons) with an average salary of 405€ while the full-time average is 1220€ (1300 thousand persons). At the same time, the average old age monthly pension is close to 800€. It is obvious that no pension system would be able to survive without significant state transfers given the level of unemployment and under-employment present in the Greek economy.
One way to compare Greece with the rest of Europe in a cyclically-adjusted manner is to calculate old age pension expenditure as a percentage of potential product. This is exactly what I have done in the following table (nominal potential product is equal to potential output multiplied with the actual GDP deflator):
We can see that pension expenditure actually compares quite favourably with other European countries such as France, Italy and Portugal.It is thus probable that a large part of the state transfers are the result of the large economic slack present in the Greek economy. That suggests that Greece primarily needs cyclical relief (through lower surplus targets for instance) rather than an upfront deep structural reform.