How to ‘Tsipras-Proof’ Greece’s reform program and its accomplishments

 

With Greece’s elections upon us and the spectre of “the day after” ever closer, the team at Reform Watch Greece (RWG), clearly no supporters of the reform record of the current government, has reconvened to lay out a few of its ideas.  As the title of this note suggests, RWG believes the path of structural reform more or less laid out by the Troika offers one of the few workable paths forward for Greece at this time.  Of course a reform plan developed here in country and agreed by the population would be far more acceptable, but for reasons specific to Greece which could fill several articles, this kind of program or consensus hasn’t emerged.  But the lack of a Greek alternative is no reason to reject other reform programs.

We produced these ideas because we want to make it clear that no matter who wins the January 25 elections, we believe that softening the Troika’s positions on the core elements of the Greek reform program would be a major tragedy for this country.  There is no question that the majority of Greeks want the country to remain in the Eurozone; our view is that the election will show what percentage of the population is willing to support a risky attempt to cut a better deal, which implies increased external financial support for Greece in some mode but doesn’t answer many other questions about how funds would be found.  Domestically, that essentially translates into reducing taxes (see below) and otherwise accelerating the pace of visible improvements in the Greek populace’s daily lives, because in essence many haven’t seen any change flowing from structural reform other than a spate of new taxes in the last 24-36 months, which have allowed for Greece’s dramatic fiscal consolidation.   As this leaves most Greek families in a state of slow decapitalization with no clear upside, it is not surprising that a sense of desperation has fed radical politics/reform fatigue and boosted the acceptance of radical solutions here.

This note is not intended as a full playbook, but here are several of the key policy parameters Greece’s negotiating partners should expect to encounter:

  1. Zero Reform Rollback (ZRR): This is the bottom line. What Greece actually needs is reform acceleration to make up for lost time since the great pre-Euro-election slowdown in early 2014. It is clear that a SYRIZA single-party government would attempt to move immediately and unilaterally to consolidate its popularity/political base through enacting legislation to reverse certain reforms already in place, along with the associated chest-thumping about the “powerless” Troika paymasters. A coalition government would need time to agree on a platform; accordingly such action would be much slower in that scenario. If market signals and domestic cash flow constraints aren’t enough to bring moderation to the new leaders, the Eurogroup and Greece’s allies need to make it clear that any attempt to roll back Troika-initiated reforms or refloat Greece’s public sector will trigger immediate sanctions and jeopardize discussions on both Greece’s debt as well as prospects for closing out/extending the current Troika bailout program. Because of the mixed messages coming from Europe up to now, SYRIZA officials continue to talk confidently to domestic audiences as though Greece’s partners are merely bluffing and have acquiesced to the inevitable. While some of this is show it appears to many as if this is the final SYRIZA position.
  2. It’s Amateur Hour: Greece’s interlocutors will immediately notice a different calibre of politician in the mix. Although many key SYRIZA officers have credible (although not world-class) academic credentials, by and large the new team does not have corporate board/private sector experience or previous international financial institution assignments. Without this depth of experience, a SYRIZA-led Greek government team will immediately be shown to be at a disadvantage in international negotiations, and out of necessity extremely cautious in moving discussions forward. Although good at spinning the Greek press, the long-winded academic approach of the SYRIZA economic advisers that we that have seen to-date might well put the focused western negotiators or the journalists they encounter to sleep.
  3. Undeniable Debt Unsustainability (UDU) is the new dogma: There can be no discussion of Greece’s economic situation with a SYRIZA official without the subject of “Greece’s unsustainable debt” being broached in the first minute. A lecture on Europe’s “immorality” in lending to Greece will follow shortly. The party essentially has no unifying core ideology beyond the demand for an upfront write-down of Greece’s debt, although as of late it seems an election-period decision has been taken not to demand such a write-off for Greek debts owed to the IMF or ECB (which would never even allow the subject to be raised). Accordingly there is still no room in SYRIZA’s thinking for maturity extensions, longer grace periods, long-term interest rate cuts and the like on the debts Greece now owes to its Eurozone partners – mostly channelled to the so-called Greek Loan Facility (GLF) and the EFSF (approximately 197 billion Euros). The Greek side will talk tough in public while quietly approaching its partners and explaining the “humanitarian emergency” facing the country. Accepting that Greece’s debt can be engineered onto a sustainable trajectory when combined with continued growth-catalysing structural reform — without the demanded write-down — may be the ultimate result of a prolonged negotiation with the Troika, but it will cost SYRIZA its ideological core. However, once it is made clear to the SYRIZA policy team that insisting on its preferred alternative (an upfront write-down) to this is financial disaster for Greece, we have no doubt an arrangement can be made. Be prepared for intense maneuvering: the Greek side will work furiously to exploit every signal from Eurozone member states and elsewhere that appears to indicate there might be the slightest flexibility on the matter.
  4. Privatization efforts cannot remain frozen in time: We continue to believe the privatization program will be the major channel for foreign investment into Greece for the next years. Although many if not most Greeks would prefer to side-line the issue, we believe targets should remain in place which will keep the Greek government focused tightly on these projects in order to raise budget revenue. However, we have witnessed a tendency for the Greek government to relax ethical standards in order to reach a deal at any price in the small group of sales that have progressed. In a number of these cases, companies run by Greek oligarchs, who are not immediately driven away by the almost-impenetrable Greek bureaucracy (as many foreign investors are), tend to take prominent roles. At a minimum, tighter monitoring of the suitability of potential investors is required.
  5. The Bank of Greece is sacrosanct: The Eurogroup and especially the ECB should remind the new Greek government to respect the full independence of the Bank of Greece Governor. Prior to the election campaign Mr Tsipras levelled substantial criticism at the appointment of former Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras as Governor, probably because he would be immune to SYRIZA pressures once installed. The ECB must warn Mr Tsipras off this tactic and make it clear that no SYRIZA attempts to undermine Governor Stournaras or the Bank of Greece’s critical role in financial policy making will be tolerated.
  6. It’s all about the Primary Surplus: The Greek population has been demanding tax policy changes and protesting loudly about some form of “austerity” or against important reforms since time immemorial, so there is relatively little new other than the breadth of the protest since the current fiscal consolidation began in 2010. However, it is important to deal with Greece’s current long-term requirement, imposed by the Eurogroup, to generate and maintain a large primary budget surplus; flexibility here is critical. These targets were set in the run-up to the November 2012 Eurogroup marathon discussions on the Greek program, after the completion of Greece’s private sector debt restructuring (PSI). From 2016-2017, Greece is obligated to run a primary surplus of 4.5% of GDP, with some flexibility to drop this number slightly in 2018 and beyond. We believe this primary surplus target is politically unsustainable, and said so at the time the decision was made. In fact the current elections might be seen as proof of this theory, and the primary surplus has not yet reached 3% of GDP (Latest estimate is 2.7% for 2014). We recommend this budgetary target be reviewed with an eye to an immediate reduction to a more sustainable surplus level, provided reforms proceed, which of course is the underlying requirement for all the Eurogroup decisions. In our view the primary surplus reduction should be keyed to Greece’s debt service repayment requirements, which in all likelihood can be sharply reduced if maturities are extended and interest rates further lowered.

In sum, we think a deal with a SYRIZA-led government might be built around these elements: (A) Reducing Greece’s primary surplus obligation, allowing for somewhat more social spending, but not rehiring in the public sector, and an earnest opening to privatization. It is of course understood that programs for job creation in the private sector will be given priority in future development planning. (B) Extension of Greece’s repayment periods to Eurozone countries (GLF/EFSF) and lower interest rates on all official debt where still possible;  (C) Specific reform requirements/benchmarks to be achieved for each year’s interest rate reductions to be certified, providing a clear budgetary incentive to fully implement reforms.

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