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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.

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Since apart from economics I have a long-lived interest in defence and geopolitical issues I will be posting from time to time on these subjects as well. In this post I would like to focus on specific aspects of a deep (first) strike scenario against the Greek air force by Turkey utilizing its F-35 (which are scheduled to start to be delivered this year).

In my view, the most important aspect of the F-35 stealth fighter is not its strike capabilities. Due to a small internal weapons bay it has a limited capacity to carry air-to-ground weapons, especially stand-off cruise missiles designed for heavily armoured and defended targets. Unless the F-35 is available in large numbers, something quite difficult due to its large costs, it does not constitute a significant direct threat as a strike fighter. Nevertheless, it will most definitely be the weapon of choice in order to hit high value targets. At this point in time Turkey has ordered 30 F-35 (with an overall target of 100 total).

What distinguishes the F-35 is its enhanced sensor fusion combined with some fairly advanced sensors (as well as its VLO characteristics). Its APG-81 AESA radar is capable of detecting a target with an RCS of 1m² (roughly the RCS of the F-16) at a range of 82NM (150km). The APG-68(v)9 radar which is the most advanced version of the APG-68 radar on board the F-16 is only able to detect the same target at half the distance. Apart from its radar, the F-35 will also use IR and radar warning sensors in order to create a 360º view of its surrounding environment.

This image can then be transmitted to other fighters and air force elements, either through a special datalink used by the F-35s or through the standard NATO Link-16. As a result, the F-35 can fly deep inside enemy territory, remain undetected (due to its VLO capabilities) and transmit data on the tactical situation to other aircraft such as the F-16.

Given their radar capabilities, roughly 10 F-35s (flying in pairs) could provide significant coverage of the Greek territory. In my proposed scenario, these F-35s will penetrate Greek airspace while flying at high altitudes (to maximize radar horizon) and carry 4 AMRAAM internally in an air-to-air configuration.

They will use Link-16 to transmit data to F-16 packets which will fly «on the deck» at low altitudes with sensor silence. These F-16s will carry stand-off deep strike weapons such as SOM, SLAM-ER cruise missiles and JSOW glide weapons. At a distance of around 200km the first wave of F-16 will release their cruise missile payload against high value targets such the main radars used by the Greek air force, air bases, Patriot batteries and C&C centres. At around the time that the first wave of cruise missiles hits its targets, a second packet of F-16s will fire a much larger payload of JSOW at a distance of 100km (this will require that the F-16s ascend at high altitude and reveal themselves on Greek radars).

The F-35s will be used to provide air coverage to the attacking F-16s by shooting down any Greek fighter jets already in the air as well as the Erieye airborne radar used by the Greek air force. A force of 10 F-35s will be able to carry 40 AMRAAM missiles which is a considerable payload on its own.

The main advantage of this scenario is that the use of the F-35s will allow the Turkish air force to use its large fleet of F-16s on a low altitude strike profile while maintaining awareness of the tactical situation, something that would not be possible without the F-35 stealth capabilities.

A radar at an altitude of 4000 feet (roughly the altitude of the Greek air force main radars) has a radar horizon of less than 200km (regardless of the radar’s specific characteristics) against a target flying at an altitude of 500 feet. This means that Turkish jets will be able to fire their cruise missiles without being detected by most Greek radars.

The same applies for the SOM cruise missile payload, since the missiles will be flying at very low altitudes. A recent article by Konstantinos Zikidis calculated the SOM RCS at 0.01m² rendering it almost undetectable (taking into account its low altitude flying profile).

Apart from the above, a deep strike mission will most probably also be supported by Turkish E-7 flying radar as well as electronic warfare aircraft. It is also quite possible that the Turkish ballistic missile arsenal (with operational ranges of more than 200km) will also be used against targets that can be fired upon from launchers in Turkey.

One can easily reach the conclusion that such a scenario carries the element of surprise with little or no warning for Greek defences, a formidable air-to-air force (consisting mainly of the AMRAAMs carried internally by the F-35s) while constantly providing Turkish forces with up to date information on the tactical situation through the use of the F-35 and E-7 sensors. The fact that less than 10 F-35 will be necessary to execute such a scenario means that it will become plausible as soon as the first batch of Turkish F-35s becomes operational (Turkish F-16s have already been upgraded to the Advanced configuration and are all equipped with the (V)9 variant of the APG-68 radar and Link-16 datalink).

Greek Response

I am a huge fan of the Viper upgrade program for the Greek F-16 fleet and the reason is that the only way to counter the F-35 threat is by creating a «sensor data net» in the Greek airspace. The Viper program will include the SABR AESA radar (which can detect 1m² RCS targets at a range of 72NM/130km) and Link-16 on all F-16s. As a result of the program, each F-16 will be transformed into a small «AWACS» and provide similar situation awareness to the F-35 with the use of only a few F-16 on air.

Interconnecting all ground based radars while also keeping the Erieye on air along with a few F-16s can provide early warning against threats such as the scenario described above, at least regarding the F-16 attack packets. Unfortunately, the F-35 low radar signature means that even the SABR radar will have a hard time tracking it at long distances with the former having a clear advantage in engaging enemy F-16s at BVR range . Low frequency radars (such as the MEADS UHF radar) might provide a solution to the problem yet I believe that the F-35 will remain an issue in the upcoming years with no clear solution.

Most people believe that the significant deterioration in the Greek balance of payments after the introduction of the Euro is a clear sign of the fall in Greek competitiveness and of unsustainable private debt expansion dynamics. It is assumed that the Greek economy was not able to provide the global market with goods and services of a sufficient quality and competitive price while the large expansion of domestic demand (due to significant private credit flows) expanded imports with a rate that led to a large increase in the goods deficit.

Although there is some truth in the above statement, a closer look at the detailed balance of payments data (from BoG) reveals some very interesting facts. The actual balance of payments figure deteriorated significantly from a deficit of €11bn in 2002 to €36.5bn in 2008 all while nominal GDP expanded by 50% in the corresponding time period.

Yet imports and exports of goods excluding oil & ships expanded with the same rate (although at a rate higher than nominal GDP which suggests that private credit flows did play a role). What made the corresponding deficit increase by around €10bn was the fact that exports are only 34-36% of imports although that ratio remained relatively steady throughout that period:

Greek Balance of Payments Imports Exports of other goods 2002 - 2008The actual increase in the balance of payments deficit can be attributed to 3 factors:

  1. An increase in the oil balance deficit which more than doubled by 2008.
  2. The ship balance moving from a surplus of €400mn to a deficit of more than €4.6bn in 2008 and
  3. A significant increase in the balance of investment income (mostly interest payments) from €2.3bn in 2002 to €10.6bn during 2008

Greek Balance of Payments - Oil Ship and Investment Income Balance 2002 - 2008

The first factor can mostly by attributed to a large increase in global oil prices during that period, especially denominated in Euros.  By 2008, global Euro oil price had increased 150% compared to 2002 while the Greek oil balance deficit had expanded by a comparable 170%.

The swing of the ship balance to a large deficit is most probably accounted by a corresponding increase in ship building/purchases investment by Greek ship companies. This was a period of large global trade growth with the Baltic Dry Index reaching new highs. The reasonable assumption was that these large investments would quickly translate into increased shipping payments that would be used to finance the initial outflows and (also) lower the current account deficit through a higher services surplus.

As for the investment income deficit this is mostly the outcome of stock-flow adjustment and monetary policy. Each year’s current account deficit added to an increase of Greek foreign net liabilities and to larger net interest payments in a semi-automatic way. Moreover, the increase in short-term interest rates by the ECB after 2005 made servicing the same amount of net liabilities even more expensive which is one of the reasons why the investment income deficit expanded more rapidly during 2006 – 2008.

If we assume that the sum of the Balance of Goods excluding oil & ships and the balance of services can be regarded as the most representative metric for the Greek external sector and competitiveness we observe that this deficit expanded by only €4.5bn during 2002 – 2008. The bulk of the balance of payments deficit expansion can be accounted by oil, ships and investment income. In other words, global factors (oil prices, expansion of trade and the shipping industry, ECB monetary policy) as well as the automatic effect of flows on stocks were the main drivers of the Greek external deficit.

Greek Balance of Payments changes since 2002 up to 2008

Recently I have been going through the excellent blog of Dietz Vollrath (which is mainly focused on long-term economic growth and its drivers) and have found a number of points on long-term growth which are highly related to the Greek case. As the IMF debt sustainability analysis made clear, Greek long-term growth expectations of 2% annually were based on Greece achieving a steady TFP growth rate equal to the best Euro performer (Ireland). These expectations have already proven way too optimistic and economic growth projections have been lowered to 1.5% yearly. Yet, as the DSA states, if Greece were to achieve a labor force participation rate close to the highest of the Euro area, unemployment fell to German levels and TFP growth reached the average in the euro area since 1980, real GDP growth would average 0.8 percent of GDP. As a result, any long-term growth projection higher than 1% per year seems highly optimistic and conditional on extremely favorable TFP growth rates. In this blog post I would like to explore a few of the headwinds that are likely to put a serious break on Greek long-term growth and how the structural reforms blue pill will not be able to help.

Structural Reforms long-term impacts

Before looking into specific issues let me remind people that the IMF’s own research indicates that most of the proposed reforms in the Greek case (labor and product markets) have low impact on long-term TFP growth rates. The reforms that do impact technical change and productivity in a positive and permanent manner are those that involve actually investing large sums of funds on R&D, ICT capital and infrastructure. Labor market reforms on the other hand have negative effects in the short-term and no impact on long-terms horizons yet they remain high on the reform agenda, even after Greece has already implemented a whole set of measures that have reduced labor bargaining power, minimum wages and allowed for much more flexible working conditions (something which is evident in the very large share of non-permanent work contracts in new hires):

Short and medium term impact of structural reforms on total factor productivity

Sectoral Composition and Growth

Dietz Vollrath also makes a very valid point when analyzing the services sector. He highlights the fact that when someone buys a service what he is ultimately purchasing is time, not a thing. When you buy a massage you are buying 60 minutes of a professional’s time. Increasing productivity in services is not even very difficult, it is also not desirable. We could increase productivity in schools by enlarging the number of children in each class but no parent would be overly fond of such an idea. Ultimately, what the services sector can achieve is either to increase its mark-ups by offering higher quality services (ie in restaurants and tourism) or provide massive, high productivity services (think large retail stores like Zara or large super-markets) which require closing down most SMEs and lowering labor inputs (since much less labor will be required to provide these services). In any case, both avenues require real investment and restructuring of the economy and not just having the state ‘reform and get out of the way’. Obviously taking the second route can increase productivity but at the expense of employment, markups, competition and most probably quality.

In any case, what the above highlights is that one cannot expect that economies with very different sectoral composition between services and industry can achieve comparable TFP/productivity gains without a long and painful process of economic restructuring. This is especially true in the case of Greece when compared to Ireland and Germany:

Sectoral Value Added Shares Germany Ireland Greece

* Source: OECD STAN archives

Economic Restructuring and the financial sector

Closely related to the argument above is the fact that economic restructuring (which means moving resources from low-productivity firms and sectors to high-productivity ones) requires a working financial sector. As long as banks carry a large pool of NPLs on their balance sheets they will mainly attempt to ‘postpone the day of reckoning’ and not help in moving capital towards high-growth/efficient sectors. This phenomenon is highlighted in recent research by BoE on the impaired capital reallocation mechanism in the UK. The high increase in the standard deviation of firm rates of return since the crisis is a significant indicator of such ‘distortions’:

figure 4 - SD of firm rates of return relative to change in capital stock

Obviously Japan is also another example of how NPLs can become a long-term bottleneck for economic restructuring and a drag on new bank lending and economic growth. As long as Greek banks are not properly recapitalized and cleared of their NPLs (which will probably reach €100bn) they will remain a barrier for restructuring the Greek economy and increasing long-term growth.

This is even more important for Greece because of the relative dominance of SMEs in the economy since SMEs are much more reliant on bank financing for their continued operation and growth:

Source of SME financing

Poverty and risk-aversion

Another point emphasized by Dietz Vollrath is the fact that there is a close (and probably non-linear) relationship between poverty and risk-aversion. High growth is usually closely related to high risk and opening an enterprise in a high growth/export oriented sector requires, apart from capital, risk taking individuals. As long as people face the risk of poverty and social exclusion (over 37% of Greek nationals aged 18-64 faced that risk during 2014) and are in trouble of securing their most basic needs such as food and shelter they are bound to be extremely risk averse and not willing to take business risks. You cannot have almost 40% of the population risk poverty and still expect strong productivity growth based on implementing risky and cutting-edge entrepreneurial ideas.

Sectoral Balances

Furthermore, whatever our projections about economic growth, the economy should be able to achieve it without creating (or worse, increasing) economic imbalances. One of the most basic tools to guarantee consistency on this front is to use the sectoral balances which involves the basic macroeconomic accounting identity that the sum of savings in an economy should balance to zero. In the Greek case this revolves around the fact that ‘debt sustainability’ requires a long-term fiscal primary balance of 3.5% from 2018 onwards. This large fiscal surplus requires a corresponding balance for the private domestic and external sector. Either the current account surplus will have to reach and remain at close to 3.5% of GDP or the private domestic sector will face a constant deficit of its net accumulation of financial assets.

Given the fact that Greece has achieved a current account surplus of less than 1.5% GDP and an output gap that is probably close to 10% its cyclically adjusted external position is still close to deficit. A quick way to determine that is to assume an import-to-GDP ratio of 25% and a low correlation between the output gap and exports (since the latter depend on external demand). As a result, closing the output gap and bringing the Greek economy back to potential will mean a deterioration of the current account balance by 2-2.5% of GDP which will bring it back to deficit. Consequently, achieving the 3.5% long-term fiscal primary surplus target implies a domestic private sector deficit of close to 4% GDP. Basing long-term growth on the accumulation of large imbalances is obviously not the way to make credible projections.

Fiscal financing of growth

One last thing that is related with the long-run target of a 3.5% primary surplus has to do with the simple fact that achieving high growth cannot be decoupled from the availability of public financing. An economy cannot grow without a strong and high quality public capital stock, nor without heavy investment in public education and R&D (especially since Greek growth will depend mainly on moving resources between non-tradable/tradable and low/high growth sectors). Nor can a country achieve high employment in the context of an aging population without finding ways to increase participation rates of women and people close to retirement which require financing of things such as (re-)educational initiatives and childcare (see the IMF on the related German case).

Conclusion

Overall, the point of this post is not to make any long-term projections for TFP/economic growth (a task which is clearly very hard) but rather to highlight the fact that achieving the IMF ambitious targets does not (mainly) rely on structural reforms but rather on actual investment (which requires large fund injections), financial sector restructuring, NPL clearance and reduction of poverty all while respecting sectoral balances which most probably requires an upfront debt restructuring and much more realistic fiscal surplus targets.

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Kostas Kalevras

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