Good and Bad Reasons for Greek Debt Relief

In a Vox column, William Cline argues that

it is important to recognise that the headline debt figure overstates the true burden of Greek debt. Because most of the debt is owed to official sector partners at concessional interest rates, the interest burden is much lower than would usually be associated with the same gross debt. Under the Fund’s own criterion for sustainability in these circumstances (ratio of gross financing needs to GDP), Greek debt should remain within an acceptable range at least through 2030. It is questionable to base debt relief policy on problems that might or might not materialise beyond such a distant horizon. Moreover, most of the projected sharp increase in debt could be avoided by carrying out bank recapitalisation directly from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to the banks, rather than through the Greek government as an intermediary.

There is still an important potential role for using interest rate relief, for two purposes. First, if fiscal balances fall below target because of lower than expected growth (rather than policy slippage), a portion of interest otherwise accruing could be forgiven to avoid the need for additional fiscal tightening and its recession-aggravating consequences. Second, because Greek unemployment is at depression levels (26%), special employment programmes would seem appropriate, and forgiving a portion of the interest due could provide a significant source of funding for this purpose.

Cline also discusses the claim that Eurozone loans mainly saved Eurozone banks:

  • not true, they received only one-third of the official sector support;

that the Troika called for too much austerity:

  • true, the cyclically adjusted primary balance swung from -13.2% of GDP in 2009 to +5.3% in 2014, much more than in Portugal, Spain or Ireland;
  • but Greece was cut off from financial markets;
  • and Eurozone support as a share of GDP exceeded 100% in Greece compared with roughly 30% in Ireland and Portugal or 5% when the US supported Mexico;
  • “even at the upper bound of the IMF’s upward-revised multipliers (1.7), smaller spending cuts would not have boosted GDP and revenue by enough to pay for themselves;”
  • and the adjustment mostly occurred in the early years when spreads were high and would have been even higher with less adjustment.

Cline estimates that the third rescue package will raise Greek net debt by 10-15 billion Euros.