Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: Grexit Rising:

When it comes to tossing around their weight, it doesn’t matter that each country has a single vote at the U.N. General Assembly. There are a few big, important countries and there are many little, unimportant countries. You can see this at work in the current stand-off over the Greek debt issue.

The I.M.F., although chock-full of technical experts, still has an acute political awareness. So, the I.M.F. has long favored pairing a reduction (“restructuring”) of the debt owed by Greece to its European creditors (especially Germany) with economic reforms by Greece. Greek debt is up to 180 percent of GDP. There is no way the Greeks are going to make the sacrifices necessary to pay the debt, but the European creditors have refused to absorb the losses. The Greeks revolted against both austerity and the reforms pushed by the I.M.F. and the European Union. Now there is a dead-lock. However, in public the I.M.F. has laid the blame for the impasse at the feet of the Greek government. Complaints about the intransigence of the creditors were uttered sotto voce.[1] That reflects the importance of Germany and France on the world scene and within the European Union. The harsh stance toward the Greeks also reflects the utter unimportance of their country. Greeks are by nature Hellenophiles, so they have some difficulty registering the reality that no one else cares what happens to Greece.

Before joining the Eurozone, the Greeks could have dealt with their debt problem (and did) by devaluing their currency. Effectively, this robbed their creditors. Served the creditors right for lending to the Greeks. Financial Darwinism in action. Nobody much cared. Joining the Eurozone, with its single exchange rate, robbed Greece of this option.[2]

In a normal bankruptcy, the creditors would have to eat a lot of their claims on the grounds that they had been foolish to lend the money in the first place. The Greek case is different because the crisis arose when it became apparent that several Greek governments representing different parties had “cooked” the national accounts in order to deceive lenders. So, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that Greece would get its head held under the tap while someone (with a German accent) gave them a good scrub with a steel brush. Still, you can’t get blood out of a stone. Why not say “enough is enough”?

I conjecture that there are several reasons. First, once all is forgiven, and the debt has been written down, and the Greeks have agreed to some cosmetic reforms of unions and pensions, and enough time has passed for people in financial markets to forget about the whole thing[3], the Greeks will do it again. There is no solution to this problem except to boot the Greeks out of the Eurozone. Second, what will be the effect of a Greek default on the creditors? Back in August 2012, it was estimated that the Eurozone Central Banks could lose as much as 100 billion Euros from a Greek default, with the German Central Bank getting soaked for up to 27 billion Euros.[4] I have not seen much discussion of the impact on the creditor economies of a Greek default (but maybe I wasn’t looking). Economically, but even more politically, accepting that the money is gone will be hard for democracies to choke down. Still, push is coming to shove. Either before or after a new “extension,” the Greeks will get shoved out the door.

[1] Liz Alderman and Landon Thomas, Jr., “I.M.F. Recalls Negotiators as Deadline Looms for Greek Deal,” NYT, 12 June 2015.

[2] In exchange, the Greeks gained the transient psychic benefit of believing that they did not live in a banana republic.

[3] In all likelihood a relatively short span of time. Which should make Americans wonder whether anyone learned any lessons from our own “recent unpleasantness.”

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_debt_crisis#Greece

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