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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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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.

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.