With talks ongoing about resolving the Greek debt crisis, it is clear that there is no agreement that will satisfy both sides – the Greek government and the troika of lenders (the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission). Their current negotiating positions are irreconcilable. What is needed is something more fundamental to provide a long-term solution. What is needed is a ‘deus ex machina‘.
A deus ex machina, which is Latin for ‘god from a machine’, was a device used in Greek tragedy to solve an impossible situation. A god would appear from above, lowered by a crane, or from below through a trap door, and would put everything right. The tragedy would then be given a happy ending.
So what possible happy ending could be brought to the current Greek tragedy and who could be the deus ex machina?
The negotiations between Greece and the troika currently centre on extending credit by €7.2bn when existing debts come up for repayment. There are repayments currently due to the IMF, or by the end of June, of €1.5bn and more in July, September and December (another €3.2bn). There are also €6.7bn of Greek bonds held by the ECB, as part of the 2010 bailout programme, that are due for repayment in July and August. Without the €7.2 billion bailout, Greece will be unable to meet these debt repayments, which also include Treasury bills.
But the troika will only release the funds in return for harsh austerity measures, which involve further cuts to pensions and public expenditure. Greece would be required to run a substantial budget surplus for many years.
Greece could refuse, but then it would end up defaulting on debt and be forced out of the euro. The result would probably be a substantial depreciation of a newly restored drachma, rising inflation and many Greeks suffering even greater hardship – at least for a period of time.
So what is the possible deus ex machina? If you’re looking for a ‘god’ then it is best, perhaps, to look beyond the current actors. Perhaps the Americans could play the role in finding a solution to the impasse. Perhaps a small group of independent experts or politicians, or both, could find one. In either case, the politics of the situation would have to be addressed as well as the economics and finance.
And what would be the ‘fix’ to satisfy both sides? Ultimately, this has to allow Greek debt to be sustainable without further depressing demand and undermining the fabric of Greek society. This would almost certainly have to involve a large measure of debt forgiveness (i.e. debts being written off). It also has to avoid creating a moral hazard, whereby if the Greeks are seen as being ‘let off lightly’, this might encourage other indebted eurozone countries to be less willing to reduce their debts and make demands for forgiveness too.
Ultimately, the issue is a political one, not an economic one. This will require clever negotiation and, if there is a deus ex machina, clever mediation too.
Greek PM Tsipras warns lenders bailout plans ‘not realistic’ BBC News, Jim Reynolds (5/6/25)
Greece defers IMF payment until end of June BBC News, Chris Morris (5/6/15)
Greek debt talks: Empty shops and divided societies BBC News, Chris Morris (10/6/15)
Potential Grexit effects Deutsche Welle (13/6/15)
It’s time to end the pretence: Greece will never fully repay its bailout loan The Guardian, Andrew Farlow (9/6/15)
Greek exit would trigger eurozone collapse, says Alexis Tsipras The Guardian, Phillip Inman, Helena Smith and Graeme Wearden (9/6/15)
The eurozone was a dream of unity. Now Europe has turned upon itself The Guardian, Business leader (14/6/15)
Greece bailout talks: an intractable crisis with three possible outcomes The Guardian, Larry Elliott (2/6/15)
Greece needs an economic defibrillator and a debt write-off Financial Times letters, Ray Kinsella (25/3/15)
Greece’s new debt restructuring plan Times of Change, Peter Spiegel (5/6/15)
Eurozone still in denial about Greece BBC News, Robert Peston (3/6/15)
Greece bailout talks – the main actors in a modern-day epic The Guardian, Phillip Inman, Ian Traynor and Helena Smith (9/6/15)
Greece isn’t any old troubled debtor BBC News, Robert Peston (15/6/15)
Greece in default if debt deadline missed, says Lagarde BBC News (18/6/15)
Burden of debt to IMF and European neighbours proves too much for Greece The Guardian, Heather Stewart (17/6/15)
Ending the Greek Crisis: Debt Management and Investment led Growth Greek government
- To which organisations is Greece indebted? What form to the debts take?
- To what extent is Greece’s current debt burden the result of design faults of the euro?
- Would it be possible to restructure debts in ways that make it easier for Greece to service them?
- Should Greece be treated by the IMF the same way it treated the highly indebted poor countries (HIPCs) and granted substantial debt relief?
- What would be the effects of Greek exit from the euro (a) for Greece; (b) for other eurozone countries?
- What bargaining chips can Greece deploy in the negotiations?
- Explain what is meant by ‘moral hazard’. Where in possible outcomes to the negotiations may there be moral hazard?
- What has been the impact of Greek austerity measures on the distribution of income and wealth in Greece?
- What are the practicalities of pursuing supply-side policies in Greece without further dampening aggregate demand?
Scottish voters will be crucial in the upcoming election, with the SNP poised to take many of Labour’s seats north of the border. The future of Scotland will depend on which party comes to power and what decisions are made with regards to its finances.
Nicola Sturgeon wants government spending and taxation powers transferred to the Scottish Parliament, but would this mean spending cuts and tax rises for the Scottish people? Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader has been vocal in pointing out what this might mean, with cuts to pensions or raising taxes. However, given that it is Labour that is facing the biggest threat from the SNP, it is perhaps hardly surprising.
However, as the first video below shows, there would be an estimated £7.6bn deficit in Scotland, according to the IFS if spending and taxing was to be transferred here. This is because the tax revenues raised in Scotland are lower per person and spending per person is higher than across the whole of the UK. Oil prices are extremely low at present and hence this is reducing tax revenues. When the oil price does rise, revenues will increase and so if the split in finances was to occur this would reduce that deficit somewhat, but it would still leave a rather large hole in Scotland’s finances. The following videos and articles consider the SNP’s plans.
SNP fiscal autonomy plan: What would it do to Scotland’s finances? BBC News, Robert Peston (10/4/15)
Labour attacks SNP’s ‘devastating’ economic plans BBC News (10/4/15)
Ed Miliband attacks SNP plan for Scottish fiscal autonomy The Guardian, Severin Carrell (10/4/15)
Ed Miliband wars pensions will be cut under SNP plans The Telegraph, Auslan Cramb (10/4/15)
SNP fails to account for billions in welfare and pensions pledge, says IFS The Guardian, Severin Carrell (10/4/15)
- What is a budget deficit?
- What does fiscal autonomy for Scotland actually mean?
- The IFS suggests that there will be a large deficit in Scottish finances if they gain autonomy. How could this gap be reduced?
- Why has Labour claimed that tax rises would occur under the SNP’s plans? What could this mean for Scottish growth?
- Why do lower oil prices reduce tax revenues for Scotland?
- If Scotland had control over its finances, it could influence where government spending goes. Which industries would you invest in if you were in charge?
In a speech in Dublin on 28 January 2015, titled ‘Fortune favours the bold‘, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, compared the UK economy to that of the 19-nation eurozone. While he welcomed the ECB’s recently announced quantitative easing programme, he argued that the current construction of the eurozone is unfinished and still has two fundamental weaknesses that have not been addressed.
The first is the fragmented nature of banking:
With limited cross-border banking in the euro area, savings don’t flow to potential investments. Euro-area corporates’ cash balances have risen to the tune of €420 billion, or 3% of GDP, since the crisis, for example. Modest cross-border equity flows mean inadequate risk sharing.
The second is the lack of an integrated fiscal policy.
For complete solutions to both current and potential future problems, the sharing of fiscal risks is required.
It is no coincidence that effective currency unions tend to have centralised fiscal authorities whose spending is a sizeable share of GDP – averaging over a quarter of GDP for advanced countries outside the euro area.
… If the eurozone were a country, fiscal policy would be substantially more supportive. However, it is tighter than in the UK, even though Europe still lacks other effective risk sharing mechanisms and is relatively inflexible. A more constructive fiscal policy would help recycle surplus private savings and mitigate the tail risk of stagnation. It would also bridge the drag from structural reforms on nominal spending and would be consistent with the longer term direction of travel towards greater integration.
But fiscal integration requires a political will to transfer fiscal surpluses from the stronger countries, such as Germany, to the weaker countries, such as those in southern Europe.
Overall, the financial and fiscal position in the eurozone is strong:
Gross general government debt in the euro area is roughly the same as in the UK and below the average of advanced economies. The weighted average yield on 10-year euro area sovereign debt is around 1%, compared to 1½% in the UK. And yet, the euro area’s fiscal deficit is half that in the UK. Its structural deficit, according to the IMF, is less than one third as large.
But, unlike the UK, where, despite the rhetoric of austerity, automatic fiscal stabilisers have been allowed to work and the government has accepted a much slower than planned reduction in the deficit, in the eurozone fiscal policy remains tight. Yet unemployment, at 11½%, is twice the rate in the UK and economic growth, at around 0.7% is only one-quarter of that in the UK.
Without a eurozone-wide fiscal policy the problem of slow growth is likely to persist for some time. Monetary policy in the form of QE will help and structural reforms will help to stimulate potential output and long-term growth, but these policies could be much more effective if backed up by fiscal policy.
Whether they will be any time soon is a political question.
Fortune favours the bold Bank of England. Mark Carney (29/1/15)
Bank of England’s Carney urges Europe to take plunge on fiscal union Reuters, Padraic Halpin (28/1/15)
Bank Of England’s Mark Carney Attacks ‘Timid’ Eurozone Recovery Attempts Huffington Post, Jack Sommers (29/1/15)
BoE’s Mark Carney calls for common eurozone fiscal policies Financial Times, Ferdinando Giugliano (28/1/15)
Carney attacks German austerity BBC News, Robert Peston (28/1/15)
Bank of England governor attacks eurozone austerity The Guardian, Larry Elliott (28/1/15)
- Compare the financial and fiscal positions of the UK and the eurozone.
- In what way is there a ‘debt trap’ in the eurozone?
- What did Mark Carney mean when he said, ‘Cross-border risk-sharing through the financial system has slid backwards.’?
- What options are there for the eurozone sharing fiscal risks?
- What would a ‘more constructive’ fiscal policy, as advocated by Mark Carney, look like?
- How do the fiscal policies of other currency unions, such as the UK (union of the four nations of the UK) or the USA (union of the 50 states) or Canada (union of the 10 provinces and three territories), differ from that of the eurozone?
Europe’s largest economy is Germany and the prospects and growth figures of this country are crucial to the growth of the Eurozone as a whole. The EU is a key trading partner for the UK and hence the growth data of Germany and in turn of the Eurozone is also essential in creating buoyant economic conditions within our borders. The bad news is that the economic growth forecast for Germany has been cut by the German government.
The German government had previously estimated that the growth rate for this year would be 1.8%, but the estimate has now been revised down to 1.2% and next year’s growth rate has also been revised downwards from 2% to 1.3%. Clearly the expectation is that low growth is set to continue.
Whenever there are changes in macroeconomic variables, a key question is always about the cause of such change, for example is inflation caused by demand-pull or cost-push factors. The German government has been quick to state that the lower growth rates are not due to internal factors, but have been affected by external factors, in particular the state of the global economy. As such, there are no plans to make significant changes to domestic policy, as the domestic economy remains in a strong position. The economy Minister said:
“The German economy finds itself in difficult external waters … Domestic economic forces remain intact, with the robust labour market forming the foundation … As soon as the international environment improves, the competitiveness of German companies will bear fruit and the German economy will return to a path of solid growth … [for this reason there is] no reason to abandon or change our economic or fiscal policy.”
The global picture remains relatively weak and while some economies, including the UK, have seen growth pick up and unemployment fall, there are concerns that the economic recovery is beginning to slow. With an increasingly interdependent world, the slowing down of one economy can have a significant impact on the growth rate of others. If country A begins to slow, demand for imports will fall and this means a fall in the demand for exports of country B. For countries that are dependent on exports, such as Germany and China, a fall in the demand for exports can mean a big decline in aggregate demand and in August, Germany saw a 5.8% drop in exports.
Adding to the gloom is data on inflation, suggesting that some other key economies have seen falls in the rate of inflation, including China. The possibility of a triple-dip recession for the Eurozone has now been suggested and with its largest economy beginning to struggle, this suggestion may become more real. The following articles consider the macroeconomic picture.
Germany cuts growth forecasts amid recession fears, as Ireland unveils budget The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (14/10/14)
As cracks in its economy widen, is Germany’s miracle about to fade? The Observer, Philip Oltermann (19/10/14)
Why the German economy is in a rut The Economist (21/10/14)
Germany’s flagging economy: Build some bridges and roads, Mrs Merkel The Economist (18/10/14)
Germany cuts 2014 growth forecast from 1.8% to 1.2% BBC News (14/10/14)
IMF to cut growth forecast for Germany – der Spiegel Reuters (5/10/14)
Fears of triple-dip eurozone recession, as Germany cuts growth forecast The Guardian, Phillip Inman (15/10/14)
Germany slashes its economic forecasts Financial Times, Stefan Wagstyl (14/10/14)
Merkel vows austerity even as growth projection cut Bloomberg, Brian Parkin, Rainer Buergin and Patrick Donahue (14/10/14)
Is Europe’s economic motor finally stalling? BBC News, Damien McGuinness (17/10/14)
Why Germany won’t fight deflation BBC News, Robert Peston (16/10/14)
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (15/10/14)
World Economic Outlook IMF (October 2014)
- How do we measure economic growth and is it a good indicator of the state of an economy?
- What are the key external factors identified by the Germany government as the reasons behind the decline in economic growth?
- Angela Merkel has said that austerity measures will continue to balance the budget. Is this a sensible strategy given the revised growth figures?
- Why is low inflation in other economies further bad news for those countries that have seen a decline or a slowdown in their growth figures?
- Why is interdependence between nations both a good and a bad thing?
- Using AS and AD analysis, illustrate the reasons behind the decline German growth. Based on your analysis, what might be expected to happen to some of the other key macroeconomic variables in Germany and in other Eurozone economies?
In a News Item of 1 October, Over the Cliff, we looked at the passing of the deadline that same day for Congress to agree a budget. We also looked at the looming deadline for Congress to agree a new higher ceiling for Federal Government debt, currently standing at $16.699 trillion. Without an agreement to raise the limit, the government will start becoming unable to pay some of its bills from around 17 October.
One week on and no agreement has been reached on either a budget or a higher debt ceiling.
Failure to agree on a budget has led to the ‘shut-down’ of government. Only essential services are being maintained; the rest are no longer functioning and workers have been sent home on ‘unpaid leave’. This has led to considerable hardship for many in the USA. It has had little effect, however, on the rest of the world, except for tourists to the USA being unable to visit various national parks and monuments.
Failure to raise the debt ceiling, however, could have profound consequences for the rest of the world. It could have large and adverse effects of global growth, global trade, global investment and global financial markets. The articles below explore some of these consequences.
U.S. Congress enters crucial week in budget, debt limit battles Reuters, Richard Cowan (7/10/13)
Debt ceiling: Understanding what’s at stake CBS Moneywatch, Alain Sherter (7/10/13)
Q&A: What is the US debt ceiling? BBC News, Ben Morris (3/10/13)
Five Reasons to Fear the Debt Ceiling Bloomberg (6/10/13)
A U.S. Default Seen as Catastrophe Dwarfing Lehma Bloomberg Businessweek, Yalman Onaran (6/10/13)
China tells US to avoid debt crisis for sake of global economy BBC News (7/10/13)
US shutdown is starting to hit business, says Commerce Secretary BBC News (6/10/13)
Why Australia should fear a US government default The Guardian, Greg Jericho (7/10/13)
Could the US default over just $6bn? BBC News, Linda Yueh (11/10/13)
IMF piles pressure on US to reconcile differences and prevent debt default The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Jill Treanor (10/10/13)
Republicans offer to raise US debt ceiling for six weeks The Telegraph, Peter Foster and Raf Sanchez (11/10/13)
- If a debt ceiling is reached, what does this imply for the budget deficit?
- How serious are the two current fiscal cliffs?
- How would a continuation of the partial government shut-down impact on the US private sector?
- What multiplier effects on the rest of the world are likely to arise from a cut in US government expenditure or a rise in taxes? What determines the size of these multiplier effects?
- Explain the likely effect of the current crisis on the exchange rate of the dollar into other currencies.
- Why might the looming problem of reaching the debt ceiling drive up long-term interest rates in the USA and beyond?