Greece Has Returned to the Bond Markets—Mission Accomplished?

Michael Stephens | May 5, 2014

C. J. Polychroniou interviewed Levy Institute President Dimitri Papadimitriou for the Sunday edition of Greece’s Eleftherotypia. What follows is an excerpt from the English version of that interview (part one of the Greek version is here):

C. J. Polychroniou: After four years as the pariah of the financial markets, in the course of which 330 billion euros was granted/guaranteed in international bailouts in order to avoid an official bankruptcy, Greece has made a successful return to the international bond markets. Why did Greece return to the bond markets now when the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio is much bigger than it was back in 2010?

Dimitri B. Papadimitriou: The return to the bond markets was an act of pure symbolism. The government purposely made the success of the austerity program dependent on achieving a primary surplus as opposed to the return to growth in output and employment. Recall that the idea of expansionary austerity embraced by the country’s international lenders was spectacularly discredited. Thus, the Troika (IMF, EU and European Central Bank ) and Greece’s compliant government needed to invent a new metric of success, and it was associated with achieving a primary surplus as large as it could be so that financial markets can be impressed. However, no one else is impressed, especially the international lenders, for three main reasons: (1) The primary surplus was achieved by a one-off (non-recurring) excess revenue from the gains of Greek bonds in the portfolios of Eurozone’s central banks and the European Central Bank’s (ECB) holding that were returned to Greece; (2) collections of old tax revenue; and (3) non-recurring spending cuts and delayed payment of the government’s debt to the private sector, whether VAT refunds or non-payments to private sector vendors.

Finally, the return to the markets was costly to the country — the apparent low interest rate of 4.95% notwithstanding — since the interest rate of the funds borrowed from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) is at a very much lower interest rate. To be sure, the hedge funds and the private sector [parties] buying the new bonds knew that there was an implicit guarantee from the ECB that would accept these bonds under its Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) program. So the bonds were not backed by the progress of the Greek economy — it would be ludicrous to assume so, for an economy in continuing recession and increasing debt to GDP ratio, especially if its credit rating is still below investment grade. So, all in all, it was an act of desperation and a strategy to give the government extra help in the soon-to-be-held local and European Parliament elections.

[…]

CJP: Radical structural reforms, which include labor and product markets and blanket privatizations, constitute the second component of the conditions behind Greece’s bailout plans. First, is there in economic literature a direct connection between labor market flexibility, productivity growth and national economic performance?

DBP: The economic literature, as economists know, can produce conflicting results. It will not be surprising to find cases when statistics will prove that there is a positive outcome in terms of increasing productivity with flexible labor conditions, but this is always dependent on the level of technology diffusion. To be sure, German workers have the highest productivity in Europe along with those in the Netherlands, but it is not because they are paid less than other Eurozone workers but because of the high level of effective technology used. So they are about 70% more productive as compared to Greeks, Portuguese or Spaniards despite the fact that the latter work substantially many more hours during the week. Clearly, Germany’s and other North European economies enjoy better economic performance, but this is not due to so-called labor flexibility only. Germany is successful because it is lucky, having an extraordinary number of idle and low-wage workers from East Germany when the unification took place. Unification gave Germany the ability to hold West German wages down. But this should not be used as an example of a successful application of a labor flexibility policy. The literature also abounds in studies showing that labor productivity is not dependent on labor flexibility. Indeed, the theory and policy of “efficiency” wages, promoted by none other than Nobel Laureate George Akerlof and current Fed Chair Janet Yellen, is part of the economic research which shows there are productivity gains and other positive outcomes to firms which pay higher than market wages. All in all, then, the argument of flexible wages does not, I am afraid, hold water.

Read the rest of the interview at Truthout.

Related: “Prospects and Policies for the Greek Economy

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