A Greek suicide?
The good news is that a Greek default, which has become more likely after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ provocative rejection of what he described as the “absurd” bailout offer by Greece’s creditors, no longer poses a serious threat to the rest of Europe. The bad news is that Tsipras does not seem to understand this.
To judge by Tsipras’s belligerence, he firmly believes that Europe needs Greece as desperately as Greece needs Europe. This is the true “absurdity” in the present negotiations, and Tsipras’ misapprehension of his bargaining power now risks catastrophe for his country, humiliation for his Syriza party, or both.
The most likely outcome is that Tsipras will eat his words and submit to the conditions set by the “troika” (the European Commission, European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) before the end of June. If not, the ECB will stop supporting the Greek banking system, and the government will run out of money to service foreign debts and, more dramatically, to pay Greek citizens their pensions and wages. Cut off from all external finance, Greece will become an economic pariah – the Argentina of Europe – and public pressure will presumably oust Syriza from power.
This outcome is all the more tragic, given that the economic analysis underlying Syriza’s demand for an easing of austerity was broadly right. Instead of seeking a face-saving compromise on softening the troika programme, Tsipras wasted six months on symbolic battles over economically irrelevant issues such as labour laws, privatisations, even the name of the troika.
This provocative behaviour lost Greece all potential allies in France and Italy. Worse still, the time wasted on political grandstanding destroyed the primary budget surplus, which was Tsipras’s trump card in the early negotiations.
Now Tsipras thinks he holds another trump card: Europe’s fear of a Greek default. But this is a delusion promoted by his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. A professor of game theory, Varoufakis recently boasted to the New York Times that “little Greece, in order to survive, [could] bring down the financial world,” and that his media image “as an irrational fool… is doing my work for me” by frightening other EU finance ministers.
Apparently, Varoufakis believes that his “sophisticated grasp of game theory” gives Greece a crucial advantage in “the complicated dynamics” of the negotiations. In fact, the game being played out in Europe is less like chess than like tic-tac-toe, where a draw is the normal outcome, but a wrong move means certain defeat.
The rules of this
are much simpler than Varoufakis expected because of a momentous event that occurred in the same week as the Greek election. On January 22, the ECB took decisive action to protect the eurozone from a possible Greek default. By announcing a huge program of bond purchases, much bigger relative to the eurozone bond market than the quantitative easing implemented in the United States, Britain, or Japan, ECB President Mario Draghi erected the impenetrable firewall that had long been needed to protect the monetary Union from a Lehman-style financial meltdown.
The ECB’s newfound ability to print money, essentially without limit, to support both banks and governments has reduced Greek contagion to insignificance. That represents a profound change in Europe’s financial environment, which Greek politicians, along with many economic analysts, still fail to understand.
Before the ECB’s decision, contagion from Greece was a genuine threat. If the Greek government defaulted or tried to abandon the euro, Greece’s banks would collapse, and Greeks who failed to get their money out of the country would lose their savings, as occurred in Cyprus in 2013. When savers in other indebted euro countries such as Portugal and Spain observed this, they would fear similar losses and move their money to banks in Germany or Austria, as well as sell their holdings of Portuguese or Spanish government bonds.
As result, the debtor countries’ bond prices would collapse, interest rates would soar, and banks would be threatened with collapse. If the contagion from Greece intensified, the next-weakest country, probably Portugal, would find itself unable to support its banking system or pay its debts.
a In extremis, it would abandon following the Greek example.
Before January, this sequence of events was quite likely, but the ECB’s bond-buying programme put a firebreak at each point of the contagion process. If holders of Portuguese bonds are alarmed by a future Greek default, the ECB will simply increase its bond buying; with no limit to its buying power, it will easily overwhelm any selling pressure.
If savers in Portuguese banks start moving their money to Germany, the ECB will recycle these euros back to Portugal through interbank deposits. Again, there is no limit to how much money the ECB can recycle, provided Portuguese banks remain solvent – which they will, so long as the ECB continues to buy Portuguese government bonds.
In short, the ECB bond-buying programme has transformed the ECB from a passive observer of the euro crisis, paralysed by the outdated legalistic constraints of the Maastricht Treaty, into a proper lender of last resort. With powers to monetize government debts similar to those exercised by the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan, and the Bank of England, the ECB can now guarantee the eurozone against financial contagion.
Unfortunately for Greece, this has been lost on the Tsipras government. Greek politicians who still see the threat of financial contagion as their trump card should note the coincidence of the Greek election and the ECB’s bond-buying program and draw the obvious conclusion. The ECB’s new policy was designed to protect the euro from the consequences of a Greek exit or default.
The latest Greek negotiating strategy is to demand a ransom to desist threatening suicide. Such blackmail might work for a suicide bomber. But Greece is just holding a gun to its own head – and Europe does not need to care very much if it pulls the trigger.