Greece’s End Game; Unravelling The #Grexit

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Tom Janssen / The Netherlands, PoliticalCartoons.com

On Friday, the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, after months of fruitless negotiations, asked for a referendum on whether Greece should accept further austerity in exchange for continued bailout support from the IMF, or whether it should reject creditor demands, a decision which would mean defaulting on its sovereign debt obligations and effectively leaving the Euro.

If this is meant to terrify Greece’s creditors, they seem ready to call the bluff. The deadline for Greece’s current payment to the IMF (1.5 billion) is June 30th, the proposed referendum is to be on July 5th. This means that Greece will default before it’s had a chance to decide on whether they should default. If this seems like a grim picture for Greece, you have no idea how bad it is about to get.

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Since 2008 Greece has limped along, periodically looking as though it is going to default on its massive and unmanageable debt. In 2010, when it seemed like a default was inevitable a bailout was organized that mandated strict and painful austerity in exchange for the financial aid needed to keep Greece within the EU. That austerity has left the Greek economy in shambles. Unemployment sits at around 25%, while pensions have withered, as have government jobs and a shrinking healthcare budget. Greece lost nearly 25% of its GDP from the pre-crash high, a rate unmatched by any other heavily indebted Euro country facing similar austerity measures.

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Hindsight being what it is, that bailout was probably a mistake. At the time however, following the collapse of the American banking system, sidestepping a default likely seemed the best idea for every party. But several years on the Greek people were desperate for anyone that could change the fate of Greece within the Eurozone. The seeming saviors for Greece came from the leftist coalition Syriza, which promised to end the tyranny of austerity while retaining Greece’s place within the Euro.

Greece’s history with finances is checkered, if we are being generous. Greece has defaulted on its sovereign debt obligations five times since independence, and has been in default for nearly 50% of its time since gaining independence. Greece’s financial problems are also largely of their own making, having borrowed extravagantly at low interest rates and greatly expanded its government services while ignoring taxes has not earned it many sympathetic allies within the Eurozone.

This guy is Alexis Tsipras and he is the PM of Greece. He is not going to be remembered the way I think he wanted to be remembered.
This guy is Alexis Tsipras and he is the PM of Greece. He is not going to be remembered the way I think he wanted to be remembered.

But Greece’s situation is now quite dire. Greece produces little, has only a modest economy and owes far more money than it can ever reasonably expect to pay. Its economic prospects are slim and to retain any economic stability means adhering to austerity measures that gut and change pension obligations, raise taxes, reduce government sizes and heavily restrict benefits. That may be necessary tough love but it is also deepens Greece’s depression and throws into chaos the future of many Greeks, who only a few years ago thought they knew when they could retire and with how much money.

Syriza’s attempt to win concessions from Greek creditors and ease the austerity it was facing have largely backfired. Incorrectly assuming that a default would produce more pain for Europe than Germany and the ECB would willingly endure was a miscalculation that has left Greece in an even worse situation. With no cards to play the only options now facing Greece are more austerity within Europe, or even greater austerity outside of it.

Choosing austerity within the euro would at least mean keeping some of the economics on track, and would allow the government to access in excess of 15 billion in continued bailout funding. But the path now set by Tsipras, seeking a referendum five days after the deadline seems to have set in motion an even worse set of events.

From The Economist. Greece remains an outlier within Europe, even amongst other heavily indebted nations.
From The Economist. Greece remains an outlier within Europe, even amongst other heavily indebted nations.

The continued uncertainty in the negotiations through June has been putting considerable strain on an already taxed banking system. As negotiations have dragged on, Greek citizenry have been making significant withdrawals and transfers at their banks. To avoid a run the banking system it has been propped up by the ECB with Emergency Liquidity Assistance. But after yesterday’s referendum announcement the pressure on banks reached a breaking point. Thousands lined up at ATMs to get their hands on as many Euros as possible. In response the government has suspended banking for the next week and promised new capital controls to restrict transfers and withdrawals. That’s only the beginning of Greece’s banking woes.

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Rick McKee / Augusta Chronicle

The ECB has said that if Greece defaults the emergency liquidity assistance will end, which means also a collapse of the Greek banking system. And while there is no official requirement for this ECB position, the unofficial reasons are obvious. Default cannot seem like a viable path for the austerity stricken countries, and financial markets need to be reassured that EU members won’t willingly walk away from their financial obligations to satisfy voters.

This means that a Greek exit will be worse than accepting continued austerity. It will mean more unemployment, poverty, government cutbacks and shrinking services. There is still time for a deal. The government can accept the creditor demands, institute further austerity, avoid a banking collapse and continue to use the Euro. But that may only postpone a fate we all know is coming. Greece’s debt is still too large, its economy too small, its creditors too stubborn and its options too limited to change the course it is on. Greece was always destined to fail, and sometimes we must come to learn that not all problems have solutions, only outcomes.

 

Taking a Second Look at Europe

One of the benefits of being a financial advisor is the occasional one-on-one meeting you get with Portfolio Mangers (PM) and the opportunities to pick their brains. This week began for me by sitting down with AGF manager Richard McGrath, a PM based in Dublin who helps manage some global and european funds.

This was great opportunity to get some first hand information about what is going on in Europe. Following 2008, the Eurozone, easily the largest economy in the world, has been hit pretty hard. Strict austerity measures and public unrest have long painted a picture of a Europe constantly on the brink of failure. 2011 was easily the worst year as Greece got perilously close to defaulting on its debt as Germany and the Troika (the European Commission, the EU Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) played hardball looking for more political concessions from Greece.

The fact remains that big financial crises like 2008 have long tails, and Europe has been beaten-up very badly, with big reductions in their GDP, large unemployment figures and generally all-round bad economic news. And yet no storm lasts forever. Despite a difficult political structure, a burgeoning recovery seems to be underway.

Richard McGrath seems to think so at least, and I share many of his views. Some of the good news is really less bad news. For instance in Ireland continued austerity was expected to cut €3.6 billion from government spending, but as the economy improves that number has been dropped to €2.5 billion. There are lots of little stories like this helping to outline a general recovery in the Eurozone. Bloomberg reported on October 23rd that Spain had ended 9 consecutive quarters of negative economic growth, with an anemic 0.1% growth rate. Not great, but it still goes in the “good news column”.

It’s worth remembering that negative news abounds in the United States, but their stock markets have reached all time highs (again) and that after several bad years European markets have also done very well this year. But from the perspective of watching markets its important to take notice when GDP growth turns positive (Germany, France, Spain, UK – Societe Generale, September 9, 2013), investment flows start gaining (Societe Generale), all the while valuations are considerably lower, and therefore cheaper than other well performing markets (Thomson Reurters Datastream, October 21st, 2013). All of this points to one conclusion, you can’t trust the media. With it’s constant focus on negative news you might miss some of the best growth opportunities!