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07 October, 2017

Putting Grexit on the table: How a Greek exit from the EU would work

There is no shortage of viable plans for a departure from the eurozone or, in some instances, the EU. All require a measure of fortitude and adaptability–a willingness to step beyond what is, in fact, a very uncomfortable comfort zone. The question is whether the Greek ethos can rise to this challenge.

by Michael Nevradakis

Part 3 - How to depart: some further thoughts and considerations

In order to better understand the intricacies surrounding a departure from the eurozone in particular, certain additional issues require examination. This analysis will demonstrate that a departure from the common currency is indeed feasible based on current conditions while introducing some additional thoughts and proposals to the discussion.

Foreign reserve assets: As mentioned in Part Two of this series, in the pre-euro days, European countries with weaker economies, including Greece, paid for imports of vital goods such as oil and medicine with foreign currency reserves. This is also how other countries without a “hard” currency import goods today.

It, therefore, should be noted that, according to official data from the Bank of Greece, the country’s reserve assets total 6.378 billion euros, including 1.731 billion euros in foreign exchange. However, to this figure we can add the outstanding loans of Greek banks to external borrowers (approximately 27.4 billion euros as of 2015); the long-term bond portfolio of the Greek banking system, exceeding 55 billion euros; and the foreign stocks and securities held by the Greek banking system, exceeding 9 billion euros as of 2015.

Furthermore, the total circulation of euro banknotes in Greece (an estimated 27.4 billion euros in 2015) would essentially be converted to foreign exchange, as these notes cannot be canceled. In all, this creates a supply of foreign reserve assets that, according to Karousos, can cover Greece’s needs for the next five years, even if no further foreign reserves were to enter the system.

Balance of payments and trade: As pointed out by both Lavdiotis and Karousos, Greece continues to maintain a trade deficit, totaling approximately 15 billion euros. However, the difference is covered by services, specifically shipping and tourism, which generate foreign reserve and income for Greece. In short, Greece has achieved a balance of payments and services.

What this means is that Greece will continue to be in a position to import necessary goods and services during and after a transition to a domestic currency.

To float or not to float: One of the fears that is often expressed regarding a eurozone exit is a potentially catastrophic or uncontrolled currency devaluation that may follow–though this presumes that the new currency will be floated on the international markets.

Flotation, however, is not a necessity, and an excellent example exists: China. Between the late 1940s and the late 1970s, with a gradual rollback that spanned until relatively recently, China maintained its currency at an artificially overvalued level instead of allowing it to be freely floated in the global markets.

What this did was allow China to import technology relatively inexpensively with a strong currency–using this technology to promote the country’s domestic industrial base and to promote domestic consumption at the expense of exports. Once China’s industrial machine was ready to take the next step, this import-substitution model began to be carefully rolled back, opening up Chinese products to the world and eventually anchoring China as a global export powerhouse.

Conversely, in adherence with the aforementioned proposal put forth by Mosler, it would be possible to allow the new currency to float on the international markets. The domestic “short squeeze” would then be likely to counterbalance any downward, speculatory pressures on the new currency from the international markets. Furthermore, Greece could threaten to redenominate its debt into its new currency. This could act as a check against devaluatory pressures on the new currency, as the debt would, in turn, be devalued.

To devalue or not to devalue, to peg or not to peg: There are pros and cons to both options that bear examination. One option is to maintain a peg with another currency, such as the euro or the U.S. dollar. There are actually two separate issues here: the initial conversion rate of the euro to the new currency, and a possible peg of the new currency to another currency, whether the euro or something else.

Here I will argue that setting the initial rate of exchange between the old and new currency is simply a conversion–essentially an arbitrary arithmetic choice without objective (i.e., non-psychological) monetary implications. Therefore, it actually should not matter whether the conversion rate is, say, one euro to one drachma, or one euro to one hundred drachmas. Either denomination would still be equal to the initial one euro. This relates to an old economic idea, that of money illusion, coined in the early 20th century by economist Irving Fisher, who pointed out the tendency to confuse the nominal value of currency with its real value.

Here, I will posit that large denominations, such as those that Greece and Italy had pre-euro with the drachma and lira, actually are beneficial to weaker economies, as they serve as a check of sorts upon inflation. It’s much easier, for instance, to raise a price from, say, one euro to 1.50 euros (a 50 percent increase) than to, for instance, raise a price from 10,000 drachmas to 15,000 drachmas (an equivalent percent increase). The psychology of money should never be downplayed and, psychologically, a hypothetical 5,000 drachma increase has a greater impact than a seemingly minor 50 cent increase. So, following this view, the drachma could be redenominated back at the original exchange rate of 340.75 drachmas to one euro.

This line of thinking is similar to the ideas proposed by professors Priya Raghubir and Joydeep Srivastava. Their 2009 paper titled “Denomination Effect” found that people are less likely to spend larger units of currency than their equivalent amount in smaller units; while their 2002 paper titled “Effect of Face Value on Product Valuation in Foreign Currencies” found that tourists underspent when the face value of foreign currency was a multiple of the equivalent amount in their home currency, and vice versa. This rule, of course, is applicable not just to tourists: psychologically, one is less likely to spend, say, 1000 drachmas than the equivalent amount of less than 3 euros.

These rules of economic behavior were evident in Greece and some other countries immediately after the transition to the euro. Amounts that previously seemed significant, such as 500 or 1000 drachmas (denominations represented by banknotes), were the equivalent of loose change with the euro, with amounts up to 2 euros minted as coins. Furthermore, businesses across the economic spectrum took advantage of this psychological effect to round up prices while seemingly still keeping them low. For instance, a 100 drachma (0.29 euro) bottle of water was “rounded up” to 1.00 euros (340.75 drachmas). Inevitably, purchasing power diminished almost overnight.

A post-conversion peg can take place independent of the currency conversion rate. Here though, it is important to consider that a peg will tie the new currency to the fiscal policy being implemented for the foreign currency to which it is pegged. This was the case in Argentina, which led to the country’s economic collapse in 1999.

Pegging the new currency to, say, the euro, might have negative consequences: the euro itself might begin a downward spiral in the markets if one or more of its members depart. On the other hand, a peg could allow a country like Greece to essentially do what China did: maintain an artificial value of the currency for a period of time until the initial difficulties of the transition to a new economy have been surmounted.

Capital controls: In Greece, capital controls have been in place since June 2015, just prior to the July 2015 referendum. These restrictions have essentially limited withdrawals to an average of 60 euros per day–having changed during this period from a daily withdrawal limit, to weekly, to biweekly, to monthly, without significantly changing the bottom line rate.

The truth is that these capital controls have posed tremendous difficulties to Greek businesses in particular. However, in a post-transition period they might be a necessary evil until economic jitters have been overcome. If this is the case, what will be imperative is for a clear and reasonable capital control plan to be developed and to be communicated to the public, free of the uncertainty that exists with the current controls that are in effect in Greece, and with a clear forecast of when they will be loosened and/or eliminated.

Taxes: In a country like Greece, and with the economy in the condition its in, less is more when it comes to taxation. Greece’s sky-high tax rates have stifled consumer spending and have placed a chokehold on small- and mid-sized businesses, freelancers, and independent contractors. They have imposed a great burden on households and, ironically, they have encouraged the practice of which Greeks are stereotypically accused: tax evasion. For many in Greece today, it’s a simple choice between paying taxes or paying for bare necessities in order to survive.

Post-transition, a new tax regime must be ready to be enforced. One that is simple and easy to understand and fair to citizens and households, the self-employed, and to the small- and medium-sized businesses that have been a cornerstone of the Greek economy for decades.

Stability is key: in Greece, tax laws invariably change every year or even every few months, and retroactive taxation is often imposed! This makes it practically impossible for households and businesses alike to plan ahead or to make investments.

Furthermore, the Greek tax system unfairly presumes a certain level of income simply by virtue of owning a house or property (which may have been inherited), or owning a car or some other valuable asset—even if one is currently unemployed. This blatantly unfair practice must immediately be eliminated.

The value-added tax on goods–particularly vital necessities such as food, clothing, medicine, and heating oil–must also be abolished. Incentives could also be offered to lure back emigrants and businesses that have fled the country during the crisis.

Privatizations: The vast majority—perhaps all—of the privatizations that have taken place in Greece, particularly during the crisis, have been on blatantly unfair, vulture-like terms that have been completely unfavorable for the Greek state. Furthermore, many of the assets that were sold off, such as regional airports or the national lottery, were profitable—meaning that they provided income to public coffers each and every year. Many of these assets, such as airports and harbors, are also of high strategic importance.

Greece should, therefore, consider following the example of many other countries by re-nationalizing assets of vital national importance and assets that were profitable for the public sector. Other privatizations for non-vital and underutilized assets can and should be audited and reviewed–and canceled if need be. These assets can then be retained by the state as part of a public redevelopment plan, or tendered again at terms more favorable to the state, perhaps even as a long-term lease instead of an outright sale.

Red tape and bureaucracy: No matter what currency you use, your economy will be stymied if it is drowned in red tape and bureaucracy. Traditionally in Greece, this endless bureaucracy has been employed as a weapon to curtail any entrepreneurial initiative, such as the many attempts to develop an automotive industry in Greece.

Simply starting a business or forming a corporation in Greece can take months or years. In turn, the judicial system is, to put it mildly, slow as molasses. Simple “open and shut” legal cases are not “open and shut” in Greece, and almost invariably last a decade or more. This is not an environment within which businesses—particularly small businesses—or entrepreneurs can operate in an optimal fashion.

In other words, a change of currency is not enough. A change in public policy is also in order.

Legal changes: European Union membership meant that domestic law had to be “harmonized” with EU law. In order for an exit from the eurozone and the EU to be a true exit, these laws must be repealed.

But what about human rights? That’s a question that is often hysterically asked in Britain regarding Brexit. This is based on the silly assumption that human rights cannot exist without a supranational guarantor such as the EU. It also presupposes that the EU itself protects human rights. As has been determined by the UN and other bodies, this has not been the case in crisis-stricken Greece. Domestic law and international treaties are perfectly suitable for protecting human rights.

In the case of Greece in particular, what must be repealed are any and all laws pertaining to the memorandum agreements and austerity measures that have been imposed. A “clean break” cannot be considered to have been accomplished barring this. And if it is, for instance, determined that the economy is not in a position to immediately sustain a rollback to pre-crisis salaries and pensions, a clear road map for the process must be presented and communicated openly and clearly to the public.

Trade: No one is arguing that a country such as Greece should isolate itself from the world. But it is clear that EU-style “free trade” has not benefited the country, with agriculture being a case in point.

Outside of the eurozone and EU, countries are free to pursue trade agreements and partnerships with any other country in the world, without the need for approval from some other institution. Greece, which maintained strong agricultural trade with Russia, for instance, would no longer be hindered by EU sanctions, as it would be free to repeal them. Greece would be free to pursue trade relations with the BRICS nations, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, North America, and indeed even Europe. But it would have the ability to negotiate terms more favorable to its economic needs, rather than being covered by blanket EU trade rules.

One word of warning here: the BRICS, often touted as saviors, are themselves proponents of the neoliberal tenets of so-called “free” trade, including opposition to “protectionism,” which in the realm of economics has attained the same derogatory status as “nationalism” has in the political context. But what is protectionism? It’s merely the practice of defending domestic industries of vital or strategic significance from foreign competition. Especially for a vulnerable economy, the ability to protect key industries is indispensable.

Protectionism does not mean isolationism: While these two concepts are increasingly conflated, there is no argument for a country like Greece to isolate itself from Europe or the rest of the world post-exit. For instance, visa-free travel regimes can and do exist outside of a supranational context. International trade can continue. Tourism would still be welcome. And indeed foreign investment would be welcome, provided that it was on terms favorable to the local economy and domestic workers.

Protectionism can also be viewed as a means of protecting local culture from the homogenizing forces of economic and cultural globalization. Diversity and heterogeneity of course neither cause nor imply isolation.

Banking: This may be the stickiest issue of all. It is likely that, as part of a eurozone exit, commercial banks may need to be nationalized. In a sense this has already happened, as Greek banks have been recapitalized three times with taxpayer monies during the economic depression. These banks are essentially bankrupt and have been kept afloat using the tried-and-true logic of “too big to fail.”

Then there is the issue of the central bank to contend with. Greece’s central bank, for instance, is largely a privately-owned entity and 94 percent of its shareholders are not publicly known. Reforming Greece’s central banking system would seem to be the trickiest issue of all and larger-scale economic changes on a global scale would likely be a prerequisite for this to occur.

Economic development: In Greece, a mantra uttered all too frequently is that “we are a poor country” that “doesn’t produce anything.” This is not true. Greece is a land blessed with an incredible amount of natural resources; energy resources (including great potential for solar and other “green” energy sources); a rich culture and history; a large shipping fleet; an educated population and an innovative younger generation; strong agricultural capabilities and an excellent climate; and an entrepreneurial spirit—despite the culture of red tape and a supposedly “bloated” public sector. Greece has much to offer the world, and much to offer its citizens—if only its potential were to be tapped into.

To take just the example of tourism’s and the possibilities it offers: despite record tourist numbers now visiting Greece, there are many types of tourism that remain largely undeveloped or underdeveloped, including conference tourism, winter tourism (Greece has numerous ski resorts and chalets, for instance), natural tourism and camping, medical tourism, gastronomy tourism, sports tourism and sporting events that would utilize the country’s underused athletic infrastructure, and much more.

There’s a lot of potential in Greece, but the country must be free to tap into it. As long as it is not in control of its own economic destiny, this will not be possible.

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