Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister, is also an economist and an expert in game theory and co-author of Game Theory: a critical text. He is now putting theory into practice.
He wishes to renegotiate the terms of Greece’s debt repayments. He argues not that some of the debt should be written off, but that the terms of the repayment are far too tough.
Greece’s problem, he argues, was wrongly seen as one of a lack of liquidity and hence the Troika (of the EU, the ECB and the IMF) provided a large amount of loans to enable Greece to keep servicing its debts. These loans were conditional on Greece following austerity policies of higher taxes and reduced government expenditure. But this just compounded the problem as seen by Yanis Varoufakis. With a shrinking economy, it has been even more difficult to repay the loans granted by the Troika.
The problem, he argues, is essentially one of insolvency. The solution is to renegotiate the terms of the debt to make it possible to pay. This means reducing the size of the budget surplus that Greece is required to achieve. The Troika is currently demanding a surplus equal to 3% of GDP in 2015 and 4.5% of GDP in 2016.
The Syriza government is also seeking to link repayments to economic growth, by the issue of growth-linked bonds, whose interest rate depends on the rate of economic growth, with a zero rate if there is no growth in real GDP. He is also seeking emergency humanitarian aid
At the centre of the negotiations is a high stake game. On the one hand, Germany and other countries do not want to reduce Greece’s debts or soften their terms. The fear is that this could unleash demands from other highly indebted countries in the eurozone, such as Spain, Portugal and Ireland. Already, Podemos, Spain’s anti-austerity party is rapidly gaining support in Spain. On the other hand, the new Greek government cannot back down in its fundamental demands for easing the terms of its debt repayments.
And the threats on both sides are powerful. The Troika could demand that the original terms are met. If they are not, and Greece defaults, there could be capital flight from Greece (even more than now) and Greece could be forced from the euro. The Greeks would suffer from further falls in income, which would now be denominated in a weak drachma, high inflation and financial chaos. But that could unleash a wave of speculation against other weaker eurozone members and cause a break-up of the currency union. This could seriously harm all members and have large-scale repercussions for the global economy.
So neither side wants Greece to leave the euro. But is it a game of chicken, where if neither side backs down, ‘Grexit’ (Greek exit from the euro) will be the result? Yanis Varoufakis understands the dimensions of the ‘game’ very well. He is well aware of the quote from Keynes, ‘If you owe your bank a hundred pounds, you have a problem. But if you owe a million, it has.’ He will no doubt bring all his gaming skills to play in attempting to reach the best deal for Greece.
Greece’s last minute offer to Brussels changes absolutely nothing The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (10/2/15)
The next card Yanis Varoufakis will play The Conversation, Partha Gangopadhyay (8/2/15)
Senior European official: ‘The Greeks are digging their own graves’ Business Insider, Mike Bird (10/2/15)
Greece: The Tie That Doesn’t Bind New York Times, Paul Krugman (9/2/15)
Greek finance minister says euro will collapse if Greece exits Reuters, Gavin Jones (8/2/15)
Greece is playing to lose the debt crisis poker game The Guardian, Project Syndicate and Anatole Kaletsky (9/2/15)
Greek markets find sliver of hope Financial Times, Elaine Moore, Kerin Hope and Daniel Dombey (10/2/15)
Greece: What are the options for its future? BBC News, Jamie Robertson (12/2/15)
‘If I weren’t scared, I’d be awfully dangerous’ The Guardian, Helena Smith (13/2/15)
Greek debt crisis: German MPs back bailout extension BBC News (27/2/15)
- Is a deal over the terms of repayment of Greek debt a zero sum game? Explain whether it is or not.
- What are Keynes Bisque bonds (or GDP-indexed bonds)? Do a Web search to find out whether they have been used and what their potential advantages and disadvantages are. Are they a good solution for both creditors and Greece in the current situation?
- What is meant by a ‘debt swap’? What forms can debt swaps take?
- Has Greece played its best cards too early?
- Should Greece insist on debt reduction and simply negotiate around the size and terms of that reduction?
- Are Greece’s new structural reform proposals likely to find favour with other EU countries and the Troika?
After Syriza’s dramatic victory in the Greek election, it is now seeking to pursue its manifesto promises of renegotiating the terms of Greece’s bailout and bringing an end to austerity policies.
The bailout of €240bn largely involved debt restructuring to give Greeks more time to pay. A ‘haircut’ (reduction) on privately held bonds, estimated to be somewhere between €50bn and €110bn, was more than offset by an increase of €130bn in loans granted by official creditors.
The terms of the bailout negotiated with the ‘Troika’ of the EU Commission, the ECB and the IMF, had forced the previous Greek government to make substantial fiscal adjustments. These have included large-scale cuts in government expenditure (including public-sector wages), increases in taxes, charges and fares, and selling state assets through an extensive programme of privatisation.
Although Greece is now regarded as having achieved a structural budget surplus (a surplus when the economy is operating at potential output: i.e. with a zero output gap), the austerity policies and a decline in inward investment have dampened the economy so much that, until last year, the actual budget deficit and public-sector debt continued to rise as tax revenues plummeted.
Since 2007, GDP has fallen by nearly 27% and the unemployment rate is around 26%. The fall in GDP has made the achievement of a reduction in the debt/GDP ratio that much harder. General government debt has risen from 103% of GDP in 2007 to 176% in 2014, and the budget deficit, although having peaked at 12.2% of GDP in 2013, has only been brought down through huge cuts.
As a report to the European Parliament from the Economic Governance Support Unit argues on page 27:
With less front-loaded fiscal adjustment, the EU-IMF financing envelope for Greece would have needed to expand, in what is already the largest financial assistance programme in percent of GDP in recent global history. On the other hand, a less rapid fiscal adjustment may have helped to preserve some of the productive capacity that, in the course of the adjustment, was destroyed.
The new government, although pledging not to default on debt, is insistent on renegotiating the debt and wants to achieve a high level of rescheduling and debt forgiveness. As the new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, says:
On existing loans, we demand repayment terms that do not cause recession and do not push the people to more despair and poverty. We are not asking for new loans; we cannot keep adding debt to the mountain.
But, just as the Greek government is insistent on renegotiating its debt, so the German government and others in the EU are insisting that Greece sticks to the terms of the bailout and carries on with its current programme of debt reduction. Another haircut, they maintain, is out of the question.
We must wait to see how the negotiations play out. We are in the realms of game theory with various possible threats and promises on either side. It will be interesting to how these threats and promises are deployed.
New Leader in Greece Now Faces Creditors New York Times, Liz Alderman (26/1/15)
Syriza’s historic win puts Greece on collision course with Europe The Guardian, Ian Traynor and Helena Smith (26/1/15)
Greece Q&A: what now for Syriza and EU austerity? The Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/1/15)
Greek elections: Syriza gives eurozone economic headache BBC News, Prof Dimitri Mardas (26/1/15)
How a Syriza government would approach the eurozone The Telegraph, Andrew Lilico (19/1/15)
Australian economists urge Greek debt forgiveness as Syriza election win looks likely ABC News, Michael Janda (26/1/15)
Will Syriza win rock the global economy? CBS News, Nick Barnets (26/1/15)
Syriza should ignore calls to be responsible Irish Times. Paul Krugman (27/1/15)
Syriza Victory in Greek Election Roils European Debate Over Austerity Wall Street Journal, Marcus Walker (25/1/14)
Greece markets hit by debt default fears BBC News (28/1/15)
Why Europe Will Cave to Greece Bloomberg, Clive Crook (29/1/15)
Greece and the euro: Take the money and run The Economist, Buttonwood (28/1/15)
Tanking markets send dire warning to Greece’s new government Fortune, Geoffrey Smith (28/1/15)
The biggest debt write-offs in the history of the world The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (2/2/15)
- Why has Greek debt continued to rise despite extremely tight fiscal policy?
- How is the structural deficit defined? What difficulties arise in trying to measure its size?
- Would there have been any way of substantially reducing the Greek budget deficit without driving Greece into a deep recession?
- What are the arguments for and against cancelling a large proportion of Greek debt? Is there a moral hazard involved here?
- Will the recently announced ECB quantitative easing programme help to reduce Greece’s debt?
- Are negotiations about debt forgiveness a zero sum game? Explain.
- What are the likely impacts of the Syriza victory on the global economy?
The Greek economy is suffering. In April 2010, a €45 billion bailout package was agreed between Greece and the IMF and the EU. This was increased to €110 billion in May 2011. (The bailout loans expire in 2013.) In return for the loans, Greece agreed to tough austerity measures, involving tax increases, clamping down on tax evasion and government expenditure cuts. These measures have succeeded in cutting the deficit by 5 percentage points, but it still stood at 10.5% of GDP in 2010. Public-sector debt rose from 127% of GDP in 2009 to 143% in 2010. The market cost of borrowing on two-year government bonds currently stands at 23% per annum – a sign of a serious lack of confidence by investors in Greece’s ability to repay the loans.
The austerity measures have brought great hardship. Unemployment has soared. In February 2011, it reached 15.9%; in February last year it was 12.1%. According to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook (Table A2), Greek real GDP fell by 2.0% in 2009, by 4.5% in 2010 and is forecast to fall by 3.0% in 2011. But with GDP falling, this brings automatic fiscal stabilisers into play: lower incomes mean lower income tax revenues; lower expenditure means lower VAT revenue; higher unemployment means that more people claim unemployment-related benefits. This all makes it harder to meet the deficit reduction targets through discretionary tax rises and government expenditure cuts and makes it even more important to cut down on tax evasion. But, of course, the more taxes rise and the more government expenditure is cut, the more this suppresses aggregate demand. The austerity measures have thus worsened the recession.
On May 9, the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded Greece’s rating to B (15 points below the top rating of AAA and 6 points into ‘junk’ territory). It now has the lowest rating in Europe along with Belarus.
Worries have been growing that Greece might be forced to default on some its debt, or choose to do so. This would probably mean an extension of repayment periods. In other words, bondholders would be paid back in full but at a later date. This has been referred to as ‘debt re-profiling’. This could cause a renewed loss of confidence, not only in the Greek economy, but also in banks that are major lenders to Greece and which would be exposed in the case of default or restructuring.
The IMF and the ECB have been quick to stress that Greece can continue to manage its debt and that, if necessary, another loan might be negotiated. Anticipations are that Greece could indeed ask for a further bailout. But is this the answer? Or would it be better if Greece sought a restructuring of its debt? The following webcasts and podcasts consider the issue.
Webcasts and podcasts
Greece may need second financial bail-out BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (11/5/11)
Greece needs revised bail-out Financial Times Global Economy Webcasts, Luke Templeman and Vincent Boland (9/5/11)
Why Greece must stick to the plan Financial Times Global Economy Webcasts, Ralph Atkins, Frankfurt Bureau Chief, talks to Jurgen Stark (11/5/11)
Will Greece need more money? BBC News, Matina Stevis (9/5/11)
Economists debate Greek crisis BBC News, Thomas Mayer and David McWilliam (9/5/11)
Greece at ‘a very difficult stage’ BBC Today Programme, Stephanie Flanders and Vassilis Xenakis (11/5/11)
The Business podcast: PPI scandal and Greece’s debt crisis Guardian Podcast, Aditya Chakrabortty (11/5/11) (listen to last part of podcast, from 19:20)
Greece: Eurozone ministers discuss terms of second bailout BBC News, Nigel Cassidy (16/5/11)
Greece dominates eurozone talks in Brussels BBC News, Matthew Price (17/5/11)
S&P moves to cut Greek credit rating Financial Times, Richard Milne, Tracy Alloway and Ralph Atkins (9/5/11)
One Year After the Bailout, Greece is Still Hurting Time Magazine, Joanna Kakissis (12/5/11)
What price a Greek haircut? BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (10/5/11)
What is debt ‘reprofiling’? BBC News, Laurence Knight (17/5/11)
Reprofiling: Greece’s restructuring-lite Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (17/5/11)
- What are the arguments for and against tough austerity measures for Greece and other eurozone countries with high deficits, such as Portugal and Ireland?
- Should Greece seek a restructuring of its debts?
- What is a ‘haircut’ and is this a suitable form of restructuring?
- What are the arguments for and against a default, or partical default, by the Greek government on its debt?
- Is it in the intesests of European banks to offer a further bailout to Greece?
- What should be the role of the IMF in the current situation in Greece?