If you work in the financial services industry, or teach economics, or even if your familiarity with the “dismal science” is limited to a course you took in college 35 years ago, this article is not for you. I suggest you click on by and read Roger Simon. Just be sure to let him know I sent you.
When PJM’s managing editor called and asked me to do a piece on the Greek debt crisis that even dummies could understand, I was mystified.
“Why me?” I asked. “I don’t know the first thing about the Greek debt crisis.”
“You’re perfect for this assignment,” he said. “It’s precisely because you don’t know anything about the Greek debt crisis that I want you to do it. Besides, you’re something of a dummy yourself. People will relate to you.”
He had me there. So that’s the story of how I, a true Moran when it comes to matters pertaining to numbers and such, got roped into doing a story about how Europe is on the brink of a string of sovereign defaults whose impact on the world’s economy might be catastrophic. Or it might not. Or it might be a little catastrophic but not as bad as some people think. Or it might not be catastrophic at all and some analysts are scaremongering.
Get the point? It’s a matter of perception. Uncertainty is killing Greece. Can — and more importantly, will — Greece pay what it owes to its creditors? And if it doesn’t, what does that mean for other countries also teetering on the brink of default?
How much does Greece owe? Good question; glad you asked. It doesn’t matter. The whiz kids in the financial press talk in terms of percentages of gross domestic product. For Greece, the forecast is that this year, the country will owe 120% relative to GDP. If you think that sounds like a lot, you’re right. It is colossal. Don’t worry, though. Here in the U.S. we’re doing our best to catch up as quickly as Ben Bernanke can print the money. Our GDP is $14.4 trillion. The debt is now 83% of GDP, up from 51% in 1988.
No doubt the idea that tiny Greece can outdo America in anything — even in piling on debt — is driving the Obama administration and the Democrats to greater exertions in running up our national bar tab. This is the kind of “exceptionalism” our president can really get behind.
When a country’s debt achieves such stratospheric heights, perceptions begin to change and fear and panic begin to affect the markets. Even Communism begins to look pretty good to some people. That’s because no one expects Communists to pay anybody back, but at least the markets would be certain of that. Removing doubt allows creditors to plan for their losses.
Protesters from the Greek Communist Party have taken advantage of the country’s miseries by pouring into the streets and calling for the government to reject any notion of cutting spending. Considering the fact that many analysts point to the government coddling public employee unions as a contributing factor to the crisis, one wonders from which planet the Communists fell to earth. It is no longer a question of if the government should cut spending but by how much. The recent bailout package of about $150 billion put together by Germany, France, and the International Monetary Fund calls for Greece to cut spending massively.
The Greek government and the European Union leadership, prodded by the International Monetary Fund, are finally becoming realistic about the dire economic situation in Greece. They have abandoned previous rounds of optimistic forecasts and have now admitted to a profoundly worse situation. This new program calls for “fiscal adjustments” — cuts to the fiscal deficit, mostly through spending cuts — totaling 11 percent of gross domestic product in 2010, 4.3 percent in 2011, and 2 percent in 2012 and 2013. The total debt-to-G.D.P. ratio peaks at 149 percent in 2012-13 before starting a gentle glide path back down to sanity.