Greece will remain a disaster until it gets the treatment given to heavily indebted poor countries in the past
Nov 10th 2012 | from the print edition
A GENERAL strike; protesters on the streets; parliamentary battles over austerity measures needed to unlock rescue funds; and a sinking economy with an ever bigger debt burden. The situation in Athens this week is grimly familiar—and not just because Greece has had so many similar weeks over the past couple of years. There are also eerie echoes of the developing-country debt crises of the 1980s and 1990s.
The experience of dozens of debt-ridden countries in Latin America and Africa holds lessons that Greece’s rescuers ought to heed. For years, the IMF and rich-world governments tried to help them with short-term rescue loans. But the most indebted started to recover only when their debts, including those owed to official creditors, were slashed. In Europe, Poland also provides a precedent: its economy took off in the 1990s after it too was given a break by its creditors.
Greece is in the same boat. Provided that the country’s parliament passes the 2013 budget on November 11th, a fresh infusion of rescue funds will stave off imminent catastrophe (see article). Yet Greece’s economy won’t recover until it has more debt relief. That should involve, broadly, a two-part process: first, agree on a plan to reduce debt if certain targets are met; then cut the debt in stages over the next decade.
The starting point is that Greece is still bust. Earlier this year private-sector bondholders reduced their nominal claims by more than 50%. But the deal did not include the hefty holdings of Greek bonds at the European Central Bank (ECB), and it was sweetened with funds borrowed from official rescuers. For two years those rescuers had pretended Greece was solvent, and provided official loans to pay off bondholders in full.
So more than 70% of the debts are now owed to “official” creditors (European governments and the IMF). The chances of repayment are sinking with Greece’s economy. Government forecasts now suggest the country’s debt will exceed 190% of GDP in 2014, some 30 percentage points higher than the IMF predicted six months ago. This debt burden cannot fall to a remotely sustainable level without additional relief.
In private, many Europeans admit this. In public, they deny it categorically. Germany’s government is now willing to grant the Greeks more time to implement their austerity. But it will not even discuss any forgiveness of official loans.
Politically, this is understandable. Germany worries that any debt relief will reduce Greece’s incentive to undertake reforms. And it would enrage German voters, who might then punish Angela Merkel’s government in the general election next autumn. Economically, it is a disaster. As long as everybody knows Greece cannot repay its debts, the country will remain shut out of private bond markets and uncertainty about how those unpayable debts will eventually be resolved will deter investment. It will slow the privatisation of state assets, which is central to Greece’s turnaround strategy.
HIPC, HIPC, hooray!
That’s why Greece needs another debt-reduction deal. Its official creditors, particularly the euro zone’s governments and the ECB, should set out a plan for reducing the country’s debt burden while sharpening Greece’s incentive to reinvigorate reforms. One guide could be the “HIPC” initiative, the 1996 scheme where lenders agreed to reduce the debts of the most Heavily Indebted Poor Countries if they implemented reforms to reduce poverty. Another could be newly democratic Poland, which had run up huge debts under its communist rulers; in 1991 sympathetic creditors agreed to cut its debt burden if reforms were undertaken.
A bargain with Greece’s official creditors could follow the same principle. A deal would be agreed now: if Greece sticks to its reforms, its official debts would be reduced, in stages, to a level where the stock was manageable (say, 120% of GDP by 2020), the burden bearable and the repayment schedule feasible. The reduction could come through cutting interest rates and pushing out maturities, perhaps to as much as 50 years. That way, Mrs Merkel can explain to voters that the principal is being paid in full. The ECB, which holds Greece’s remaining unrestructured private bonds, should act fastest, accepting terms similar to those imposed on private bondholders.
There are complications. The IMF sold gold to finance its share of HIPC debt relief. Since Greece, even now, is far richer than most of the IMF’s members, Europe’s creditor countries should shoulder the Fund’s share of Greek debt reduction. Greece might flunk its reforms or its budget numbers. But the impact of laying out a credible path to debt sustainability could be powerful. Greeks could start to believe they have a way out of the crisis; investors could put money in the country with more certainty. It could create a positive circle of confidence and growth. Without it, Greece’s prospects are dire.