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According to recent Mario Draghi comments, the waiver allowing Greek government securities to be accepted as collateral in regular Eurosystem refinancing operations will expire along with the end of the Greek adjustment program on August 20 2018.

Based on the above I would like to take a look at what such a move will mean for Greek banks access to ECB (and ELA) lending. I will be using data available in monthly Bank of Greece balance sheet statements as well as Greek bank consolidated balance sheets (available from BoG).

Overall, Greek banks have significantly lowered their refinancing needs with a total balance of €9bn in MRO/LTRO and €7.3bn in Other Claims (ELA). Compared to the end of 2017 regular refinancing operations are down €3bn while Other Claims dropped a more impressive €14.3bn amount. If one compares the figures to a couple of years ago, the amounts are much more remarkable. MRO/LTROs are down almost €24bn while Other Claims decreased a staggering €47bn.

This drop was driven both by large decreases in liabilities towards the Eurosystem (Target2 and extra banknotes) as well as the ECB QE program. The first item is down €23bn compared to 2017 and €57bn during the last two years while ‘Securities held for monetary purposes’ increased by €31bn since June 2016.

Unfortunately it seems that Greek banks also lowered Debt Securities of Other Euro countries (EFSF notes?) by a similar amount of €33,8bn during the last two years. As a result, they now hold only €5.8bn in securities of that category while they also carry €10.6bn in Greek government securities on their balance sheet.

Compared to the total of €9bn in regular refinancing operations outstanding, Greek banks do not seem to hold enough non-Greek government securities to post as collateral. Moreover, they hold €186.7bn in credit claims (before provisions). According to BoG NPL statistics, almost 50% of credit claims are non-performing which means that much less than €100bn credit claims can be used as collateral in some form or another (with significant haircuts given current Greek bank loans quality). Actually, BoG states that Greek banks have already posted €54bn in assets as collateral on ELA operations (and another €12.7bn in regular operations) which suggests that not much is left unusable.

BoG Balance Sheet 2018H1

Consequently, it seems quite probable that at least some part of regular refinancing operations will have to be moved to ELA after the program expiration due to limited availability of high-quality collateral. The amount of financing allowed for ELA (as set by the Eurosystem and announced regularly from BoG) will be an early hint on that. Other developments such as the QE program or a return of deposits to the Greek banking system will act at the opposite direction. Unfortunately, the June 2018 BoG balance sheet statement states that less than €1bn in extra banknotes is outstanding which suggests that most of the ‘cash under the mattress’ has already returned and no major positive developments can be further expected on that front.

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Recently, the IMF published its long-awaited Article IV consultation on Greece which includes an assessment of the latest developments of the Greek economy as well as its own DSA on Greek debt (which rests on significantly different assumptions than the ESM DSA).

The IMF starts with a stark chart showing how the Greek tragedy compares to the US Great Depression, the 1997 Asian crisis as well as the Eurozone crisis:

IMF Greece Crisis US Great Depression Asian Crisis

The depth of the Depression is quite similar to the US case while Greece has managed to «maintain» a 25% lower GDP for a period of 5 years.In contrast, even the US managed to return to its pre-crisis GDP level 7 years after the start of the Great Depression. This is a clear indication of the way the Greek case was tragically mismanaged by the European countries and the IMF whose priority was avoiding a principal haircut of official loans rather than a quick return of Greece to growth.

The IMF projects that Greece will grow moderately during the 2018-2022 5-year period which also coincides with the period during which the country will have to register primary surpluses of at least 3.5% GDP. Most of the growth is projected to come from fixed investment with private consumption contributing 0.5% annually and a neutral contribution from the foreign balance:

IMF - Greece 2018 - 2022 main macroeconomic projections

As I have outlined in the past, such a growth path rests on the assumption that Greek households will continue dis-saving at the order of €9bn annually even while they have already depleted their financial assets by €34bn in the 2011-2017 period. This is based on the fact that, given a neutral external balance and a 3.5% primary government surplus, sectoral balances indicate that the private sector will need to maintain a negative net asset position in order for the other sectors to achieve these balances.

Projecting nearly 1% annual increase in private consumption during the 2020 – 2023 period without any countervailing factor (such as a positive external balance or a significant relaxation in the fiscal stance) seems quite optimistic. An annual negative balance of just €8bn means that households will have to consume another €40bn of their financial assets in the 2018-2022 period. Only employment growth (which will increase disposable income of the household sector) will act as a countervailing force. It’s a pity that the IMF does not use sectoral balances to check whether assumptions for private consumption and government surpluses can be realistic in the long-run.

The other important part of the IMF document is obviously the Greek debt DSA as well as its assessment of the possibility of maintaining large primary surpluses for many decades.

In its baseline scenario the IMF staff agrees with the ESM that debt-to-GDP trends down and Gross Financing Needs (GFN) remain below 15% of GDP in the medium term.

Nevertheless, the IMF argues that Greece will be unable to maintain a primary surplus larger than 1.5% of GDP after 2022 while its long-run economic growth will hover around 1% in start difference with the ESM which is projecting a primary surplus of 2.2%. As a result, the IMF is much more pessimistic for the long-run, projecting that Greek debt will become unsustainable after 2040:

IMF - Article IV 2018 DSA

What is also quite interesting is how even medium-term sustainability rests on assumptions of large primary surpluses and growth during the 2018 – 2022. A small 2 year recession during 2019-22 (with a total of -3% GDP growth) coupled with a small primary deficit for just one year will immediately push debt-to-GDP close to 200% and GFN to 20%.

IMF - Adverse Scenario 2019 - 2022 Greek Debt

Lastly, the IMF staff try to justify analytically why Greece will be unable to maintain high primary surpluses and economic growth in the following years. While the specific arguments have been put forth many times in the past, it is interesting to repeat them here once more (in IMF exact wording):

  • Ceteris paribus, aging would imply an average yearly decline of 1.1 percentage points in Greece’s labor force during the next four decades.
  • Total factor productivity (TFP) growth over the last 47 years averaged just ¼ percent annually, by far the lowest in the Euro Area. Assuming this historical average TFP growth rate going forward, labor productivity (output per worker) would grow only at about 0.4 percent in the steady state (the rate of TFP growth adjusted for the labor share in output).
  • Combining the historical growth in output per worker of 0.4 percent with expected growth in the number of workers of -1.1 percent would imply long-term annual growth of -0.7 percent.
  • While studies have documented an impact on output levels of 3 to 13 percent over the initial decade, the impact of reforms on growth tends to fizzle out afterwards.
  • Lifting long-term growth from its baseline of –0.7 percent to 1 percent requires reforms to add 1.7 percentage points to growth per year for the next decades. The OECD (2016) estimates that full implementation of a broad menu of structural reforms could raise Greece’s output by about 7.8 percent over a 10-year horizon, which translates into an increase in annual growth of some 0.8 percentage points for about a decade. Bourles et al. (2013) estimate this gain to be slightly higher, at about 0.9 percentage points per year, while Daude (2016) finds that reforms focused on product markets and improving the business environment in Greece could boost growth by about 1.3 percentage points per year for a decade.
  • Implicitly, the 1 percent growth projection presumes that Greece would manage to increase labor force participation to levels that exceed the Euro Area average (to offset the significant projected decline in Greece’s working age population) and that would generate TFP growth rates permanently far above Greece’s historical average.
  • Historically, Greece has been unable to sustain primary surpluses for prolonged periods. During 1945–2015, the average primary balance in Greece is a deficit of about 3 percent of GDP, although a brief period of near-zero primary balance took place at the time of Greece’s EU accession. The high water-mark for Greece was a primary surplus exceeding 1 percent of GDP during eight consecutive years (1994–2001).
  • In a sample covering 90 countries during the period 1945–2015, there have been only 13 cases where a primary fiscal surplus above 1.5 percent of GDP could be reached and maintained for a period of ten or more consecutive years.
  • Economic conditions matter. Among EU countries, before entering a period of high average primary balances, countries tend to have strong real GDP growth (2.7 percent) and modestly high inflation (4 percent). They also have moderate unemployment (10 percent) and low net foreign debt (24 percent of GDP), conditions that do not conform to those now applying in Greece. Moreover, during the high primary balance periods, growth has been rapid (about 3.4 percent), inflation slightly elevated (3 percent), and unemployment contained (at about 7.2 percent). This suggests that sustained periods of high primary surpluses are driven by strong economic growth rather than by sizeable fiscal consolidation.
  • Unemployment weighs on the budget through higher social expenditures—such as for unemployment benefits and social safety nets—as well as lower income-related revenue. Greece’s unemployment rate is exceptionally high—only 10 countries have had unemployment higher than 20 percent in the postwar period.Within the above sample, the average primary balance corresponding to countries suffering double-digit unemployment rates is about zero percent of GDP (i.e. balance). For double digit unemployment lasting for 10 years or longer, the average primary balance is about -½ percent of GDP. With long-term unemployment likely to remain high for some time, pressures on social assistance spending in Greece—such as the guaranteed minimum income—are likely to mount.

Overall, the IMF tries its best to provide Europeans with political cover for the medium-term outlook on the Greek front while still presenting a scientific case for why the targets set in the Greek program are highly unrealistic and will not be achieved. In my view it should pay closer attention to sectoral balances which would make it even easier to argue why large primary surpluses cannot be maintained in a country with a structurally negative external balance.

The latest data on Greek national accounts indicate a steady deterioration in private consumption throughout 2017 which registered negative growth during 2017H2 and only contributed 0.1% in annual GDP growth. Overall, only investment was the main driver of the small growth in the Greek economy during 2017:

Greece GDP components increase 2015 - 2017

Since investment is usually described by an accelerator effect (with domestic and external demand driving capacity utilization upwards and increasing the need for investment in new productive capacity) the only way for Greece to achieve significant growth in the coming years will be through an increase in private consumption (which is still close to 70% of GDP).

Yet as was described in a recent Eurobank 7-days economy bulletin, private household saving registered its 6th consecutive year in negative territory. According to AMECO data household gross saving was -€9.4bn in 2017, a new negative record and significantly lower than the €7.7bn during 2016. During the 2011 – 2017 period total saving was an impressive -€33.6bn (or almost 20% of the 2017 GDP figure).

Greece household gross saving 2000 - 2017

It is quite obvious that households can maintain consumption by running down assets only temporary yet the EUprojects the same dis-saving to continue throughout 2018 and 2019 with an additional €16bn reduction in household assets.

On a cumulative basis (starting at 2000 with the introduction of the Euro) total gross (negative) saving by the end of 2019 will have reached back to 2004 levels at close to €44bn (from a peak of €93bn).

Greece - Cumulative Household Gross Saving 2000 - 2019

Given the fact that a large part of household saving is not directed towards liquid deposits but is invested in other assets such as housing, it is evident that a total negative saving flow of €50bn by 2019 will place a significant challenge on household balance sheets. This is even more difficult given the large pool of outstanding NPLs, private debts towards the state/social security funds and the difficulty of securing new loans from the Greek banking system.

Since Greece is targeting large primary surpluses for the public sector at least until 2022 (in the order of 3.5% of GDP) and taking into account its structural external deficit, sectoral balances indicate that the household negative net balance is most likely to continue. Given these balance sheet dynamics it seems quite unlikely that private consumption will register large increases in the coming years and support a strong cyclical recovery for the Greek economy.

There’s a (greek) article circulating on the internet during the last few days based on an older Mises post from May 2015 which analyses how 67% of the Greek population depends on public funding which is obviously provided by taxing the remaining 1/3.

The essence of the above article can be summarized in the graph below which is supposed to show the percentage of population reliant on public funding for various countries:

population reliant on public funding by country

Although the article does not really bother to describe in detail how the graph is created or which year it refers to I will assume that it is based on 2014 data (since it first appeared on the Internet in 2015) and try to roughly recreate the relevant metric for Greece but explore it in historical terms.

The main argument of the Mises post is that public employment and pensions are reliant on private sector taxes and pension contributions and should thus be considered «a burden». Since I want to keep the data simple and easily accessible I will assume that pensioners are those over 65 years old and public employment the sum of «public administration and defence», «health services» and «education» from the Employment Survey. According to the latter, the sum was roughly 800 thousand persons at the end of 2014 which I will regard as constant due to data availability at FRED.

Based on the above a rough estimate of the percentage reliant on the private sector will be «1 – (employment – 800,000) / population over 15 years old» which is shown in the graph below (FRED only has data starting at 1998):

Greece population dependant on private employment.png

What is evident is that this percentage was over 50% already before the introduction of the Euro and started decreasing after 1999 reaching 48% in 2008 (from 54% in 1999) mainly driven from the increase in private employment. It shot through the roof during the Greek Great Depression to the level of 62% in 2013 because of the increase in unemployment. This is the point in time when Mises took «a picture» of this percentage to make its argument.

It is almost a tautology that in a country with more than 25% unemployment and another 20% of the population being over 65 years old a large part of the population will be reliant on those left working for its income and basic needs. Mises (circular) argument is more or less that the large unemployment in Greece is due to… people being massively unemployed. The fact that Greece has a structural primary balance of over 6% obviously seems to not play any role.

 

The latest ESM compliance report on the Greek adjustment program also contains an updated Debt Sustainability Analysis (DSA) which reaches some fairly important results.

Its main assumptions are:

  • Real GDP growth close to 1.5% after 2022 and 1.25% from 2030 onwards. Coupled with inflation equal to 2% after 2024 the Greek long-term growth outlook is equal to 3.25% in nominal terms (the IMF on the other hand expects a nominal GDP growth rate of 2.8%).
  • Total privatisation revenues of €17bn with no need for further bank recapitalisations (the IMF projects €10bn revenue and a need for an additional €10bn buffer for bank capital needs).
  • A 3.5% primary surplus until 2022 after which the primary surplus starts to decrease 0.5 p.p. per year levelling off at 2.2 % as of 2025 (the IMF does not consider these long-term surplus targets sustainable).

Event under these assumptions the baseline scenario expects the debt-to-GDP ratio to reach 165% in 2020 and 127% in 2030 while the Gross Financing Needs (GFN) are projected to increase from 2020 onwards reaching 23% in 2055.  As the report itself states:

Given the high debt-to-GDP and GFN-to-GDP levels, concerns remain regarding Greece’s debt sustainability under this scenario.

 Under more unfavourable scenarios the debt-to-GDP and GFN ratios are quite explosive and do not allow Greece to reach any measure of debt sustainability.

DSA - results* Scenarios B & C are the adverse scenarios.

Even the ESM is not able to paint a rosy picture of Greek debt dynamics despite making some very favourable assumptions regarding long-term growth and government primary surpluses. A small deviation from these (optimistic) assumptions puts the Greek debt to an unsustainable path.

Although the above make it clear that further rounds of debt restructuring will be needed, the fact that GFNs fall significantly during the 2018-20 period means that Europeans can narrowly focus on short-term targets regarding Greek primary surpluses while postponing debt reduction measures for the more distant future. As a result, Greece might be caught in a situation where short-term measures are demanded (such as bringing the income tax threshold reduction forward) while debt restructuring is only offered as a promise for .. the next decade and contingent on fiscal measures being passed immediately.

As I ‘ve highlighted many times in the past, the level of future long-run primary surpluses for Greece plays a major role in the debt sustainability scenarios. The major difference between the IMF and Euro institutions projections is identified in the primary surplus assumptions. The IMF projection for a 1.5% surplus makes debt restructuring necessary while the European institutions assume much higher primary balances which make debt sustainability more favourable.

IMF vs Euro Institutions Greek DSA

A recent ESM paper on Greek debt reveals the importance of these projections. If Greece achieves 3.5% primary surplus until 2032 and 3% until 2038 no debt restructuring is required as long as economic growth is 1.3%. On the other hand, the IMF scenario of 1% economic growth and a primary surplus of 1.5% after 2022 makes Greek debt explosive.

European institutions try to make the case that episodes of large and sustained primary surpluses are not uncommon in European modern history. The ECB especially highlights the cases of Finland and Denmark as well as other countries:

The European Central Bank says such long periods of high surplus are not unprecedented: Finland, for example, had a primary surplus of 5.7 percent over 11 years in 1998-2008 and Denmark 5.3 percent over 26 years in 1983-2008.

and

ECB - Selected Episodes of large and sustained primary surpluses in Europe

My comments are twofold. First, the average primary surplus figure is not always equal to the year-by-year primary balance. Denmark achieved a primary surplus equal or higher than 5.3% in only 5 years during the 1983 – 2008 period. Actually, the primary surplus was at least 3.5% during 9 of the total of 26 years.

Yet the most important element that is not highlighted in the above cases is the fact that large primary surpluses were achieved in the context of equal or (mostly) higher current account surpluses. This is highly important since it allows the domestic private sector to achieve a positive net asset position even when the public sector is in surplus. As a result, economic growth is not threatened by the public sector and the private sector maintains a healthy balance sheet.

To illustrate the above I ‘ve «corrected» the primary surplus by subtracting the current account surplus. I ‘ve also deliberately set the vertical axis maximum to 3.5% which is the surplus requested from Greece to illustrate the fact that it is almost never achieved.

corrected primary balance for current account - selected high surplus episodes.jpg

On the contrary, of the total of 60 years in the above episodes, 26 had a negative corrected primary surplus while it was lower than 1.5% in 40 years illustrating the fact that the IMF assumption of a 1.5% surplus is not unreasonable.

Since the Greek cyclically adjusted current account is highly negative it is clear that the assumption of high primary surpluses which will be maintained for decades is almost without precedence in the context of the private sector balance. Assuming a 3% nominal growth rate (based on the IMF assumption of 1% growth), a 10 year 3.5% primary surplus is equal to a 30% GDP transfer from the domestic private sector while a 20 year 3.5% surplus is equal to 52% GDP transfer which will not be counterweighted by a current account surplus.

In my view, the European institutions continue to make assumptions consistent with avoiding explicit costs for Greece’s creditors but inconsistent with economic reality and sectoral balances.

A recent paper tried to perform a very important exercise of evaluating the balance sheet effects of a Euro exit for various Euro countries. Its results were that the relevant sectoral net positions will be the main drivers of balance sheet effects. Periphery risks are concentrated on the net positions of the government and the central bank while the financial and non-financial sectors mostly hold a positive net position.

net position by sector and country

More specific risks do arise from the fact that certain sectors (within countries) have significant levels of short-term debts, although this fact does not change the overall picture substantially.

Debt by sector and country

I would like to use this opportunity in order to take a detailed view at the sectoral balance sheet risks from a Grexit scenario relying on BoG Greek NIIP data (data are for 2016Q3). I am focusing on specific categories and not taking categories such as direct investment or derivatives into account.

Greek Sectoral NIIP 2016Q3

On the asset side:

  • BoG now holds a large stock of foreign bonds as a result of its participation in the ECB QE program.
  • MFIs have a total of €19bn in deposits and €59bn in bonds a loans. Nevertheless, a large part of the latter are EFSF notes offered as part of the various rounds of Greek banks recapitalization exercises.
  • NFC and households have substantial claims in the form of deposits and banknotes, more than €52bn in total.
  • The general government holds no assets while its foreign exchange reserves are very low and mostly in the form of monetary gold. Although Greece does have a claim on the ECB reserves this would not change the picture in a serious way.

On the liability side:

  • The general government is the largest debtor with €28bn in bonds and €236bn in loan liabilities. Yet most of the bonds and almost all of the loans are long-term in nature.
  • BoG is the second largest debtor with almost €93bn in liabilities which consist of Target2 and extra banknotes.
  • MFIs have a large stock of liabilities in the form of deposits (which are usually a proxy for repo trades).
  • NFC and households have a very small stock of liabilities in the form of bonds and loans (a bit over €10bn).

Overall one observes that:

  • The largest part of the Greek NIIP is attributed to the Greek government with over €260bn in debt.
  • Taking into account the bonds held as part of QE, BoG net foreign liabilities drop to €47bn.Using the most recent available data (January BoG monthly statement) this figure further decreases to a bit over €38bn or close to 20% of GDP.
  • NFC and households hold a strong positive net claim from the RoW equal to almost €44bn. This most certainly masks firm-specific risks and mismatches but overall, the Greek non-bank private sector will improve its net position in the case of a currency depreciation (following a Grexit).
  • Using only deposits figures, Greek MFIs have a net liability close to €28bn. Since a large part of their liabilities will be under foreign (instead of domestic) law this creates a serious risk of missing debt payments or being unable to roll-over short-term repos and other obligations. Given that the Greek banking system will be the one intermediating in all of the private sector’s foreign transactions this net liability position can create rather difficult scenarios.

I will also use BoG MFI balance sheet data to take a closer look at Greek bank foreign risks:

Greek banks foreign risk Jan-2017

It is clear that things are a bit complicated, especially since Greek banks have a large stock of intra-group transactions with group members in other (Balkan?) countries. Nevertheless, after correcting for such transactions one observes that they owe €13.6bn in net liabilities to other MFIs (€18.5bn gross) and another €8.6bn in foreign deposits. The main source of risk will mostly be the first item which is usually secured by a standard contract (master agreements) and is under foreign law.Missing a payment on these liabilities will create serious problems for the corresponding bank and its ability to continue transacting in international markets. Obviously a risk assessment would be made easier if the maturity profile of these liabilities (and assets) was known.

Regarding the BoG liability position I believe that in the event of a Grexit, securities held for monetary purposes will be used to settle the largest part of Eurosystem claims while the remaining net position will be settled with some form of Greek government long-term securities (probably floating rate notes paying Euribor).

In summary, I generally agree with Kostas Lapavitsas who believes that a Grexit scenario will necessitate increasing Greek government foreign reserves to at least €12-15bn. The main immediate sources of risks are the short-term debt of the Greek government and Greek banks. The first consist mainly of liabilities towards the IMF (since SMP Greek bonds are under Greek law and would be converted to the new currency) while the second require a thorough risk analysis. A Grexit would be extremely difficult if Greece only held €7bn in foreign exchange reserves (with 2/3 being monetary gold) since a bank debt payment failure would create serious disruptions in the country’s international transactions.

ELSTAT released the second national accounts estimate for 2016Q4 today and the announcement did make a lot of noise. The main reason being the large growth revisions for the last quarter of 2016 with the volume decreasing by 1.1% compared to the last quarter of 2015, in stark contrast with the initial flash estimate of an increase equal to 0.3%. This development erased the initially estimated annual expansion of 0.3% with the current figure being slightly below zero.

Yet I think that looking into the detailed evolution of specific aspects of the Greek GDP paints a rather different and less alarming picture:

greek-volume-quarterly-national-accounts-2014-2016

Both private consumption and net exports posted positive growth compared to 2015Q4 while general government consumption fell by €200mn in volume terms. The negative outcome for 2016Q4 is entirely attributed to investment which dropped 1.76bn. The reason for this is twofold.

First, change in stocks was a negative 1.47bn which coupled with another -1.53bn in Q3 resulted in a second half figure of roughly 3bn. Nevertheless, private consumption was 0.9% higher in 2016H2 which does not justify such a fall in stocks (almost 10% of quarterly private consumption). Taking a look at a 4-quarter moving sum reveals that the sum is close to the trough of recent stock cycles.

greece-change-in-stocks-4-quarter-moving-sum

Given the fact that 2016Q1 change in stocks was a positive 1bn, even a zero change in stocks during 2017Q1 will lead the moving sum to a figure close to -2.7bn similar to what happened during 2012, at the depths of the Greek Depression. Obviously such dynamics are hard to reconcile with a stable/slowly increasing private consumption. A zero reading for τηε change in stocks during 2017Q1 will be equal to around 3.5% of quarterly GDP and thus have a large impact on quarter-by-quarter growth figures.

The second aspect of investment was gross fixed capital formation which came at roughly the same magnitude as previous quarters (5.45bn). Nevertheless, the corresponding 2015Q4 figure was exceptionally large (6.3bn) and resulted in a negative effect when compared to the last figure of 2016. Yet the 2015Q4 number seems to be a clear outlier, probably attributed to capital controls effects during 2015. This is quite clear if we compare the difference of fixed investment to its 4-quarter moving average since the start of 2011:

greece-fixed-investment-difference-from-4-quarter-moving-average

Overall, I think that 2016Q4 investment developments constitute a set of outliers and will not have a large impact of 2017 GDP movements. Although I do not share the government’s optimism about a large 2017 growth, I do not think that today’s revision for Q4 growth will change this year’s dynamics considerably.

So it is more than clear that European creditors of Greece are continuing to demand long-term primary surpluses around 3.5% of GDP. One has to ask: What’s so special about this number? Why can’t it be lowered a bit and give Greece more breathing space?

The answer is quite simple:

2% interest rate x 180% debt to GDP = 3.5% of GDP/year

The 3.5% primary surplus target is the one consistent with maintaining the debt-to-GDP ratio stable when the nominal GDP growth rate is zero. This means that Greece can  withstand shocks to its nominal growth rate (negative real GDP growth or a deflationary shock) and still manage to keep its debt ratio stable. Obviously, as long as it manages to achieve positive nominal growth its debt ratio will decline each year while privatization receipts will lower debt even quicker.

From a slightly different point of view, the 3.5% target provides insurance to European creditors that any short-term failures of the Greek program will not lead to an increase of the debt ratio, only to a flatter decline path. The risk of the Greek program not achieving its ambitious targets is pushed on the back of Greece while its creditors can keep the upside of any positive shocks that will improve debt sustainability.

Yet again one observes that the Greek issue is mostly a political rather than an economic issue. It relates to the question of who provides insurance regarding the program targets. Since European creditors appear unwilling to provide such insurance my feeling is that agreeing on a lower target will prove substantially difficult, especially in the current political climate across Europe.

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%):

tax-free-income-threshold-in-euro-area

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.

Greece - State Transfers to Pension System.jpg

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):

old-age-pension-expenditure-potential-product

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.