The Greek Tragedy and Great Depression Lessons Not Learned

In this blogpost, journalist and former managing director at Goldman Sachs Nomi Prins explains why "Greece has been the most pillaged country in Europe this Depression." During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Greece was able to float its currency (Drachma), declare a moratorium on public debt, spend to support its economy and ultimately renegotiate repayment terms with its creditors. This time around, however, the euro-bound country has become stuck in "an unstoppable downward spiral" that is intensified by credit downgrades and powerful banks that are trying to save their bets. According to Prins, a '30s-style solution is theoretically still possible, but only with the right (and currently unimaginable) political will. 

By Nomi Prins

Nomi Prins
February 2012

Greece has been the most pillaged country in Europe this Depression, among other reasons, because no one in any leadership position seems to have learned lessons from the 1930s. Plus, banks have more power now than they did then to call the shots.

Despite no signs of the first bailout working – certainly not in growing the Greek economy or helping its population - but not even in being sufficient to cover speculative losses, Euro elites finalized another 130 billion Euro, ($170 billion) bailout today. This is ostensibly to avoid banks’ and credit default swap players’ wrath over the possibility of Greece defaulting on 14.5 billion Euros in bonds.

Bailout promoters seem to believe (or pretend) that: bank bailout debt + more bank bailout debt + selling national assets at discount prices + oppressive unemployment = economic health. They fail to grasp that severe austerity hasn’t, and won’t, turn Greece (or any country) around. Banks, of course, just  want to protect their bets and not wait around for Greece to really stabilize for repayment.

Prior to the Great Depression, the Greek economy experienced years of growth, a healthy commercial activity spree, and like today, a stark increase in (less-leveraged) bank loans to finance it. When the Depression struck, banks and local businesses faced unpayable loans and declining asset values.  (Stop me when this sounds familiar).

Credit constricted immediately, choking internal economic activity.  In 1928, the Greek Drachma was tied to the gold standard, but pegged to the British pound. When Britain devalued its pound in 1931, the Greek government responded by raising public investments and pegging the Drachma to the US dollar.

But by early 1932, central bank reserves had fallen so much that they only backed 40% of Greek bonds. Even without the slow drip of rating agency downgrades to highlight this leveraged debt situation (which is nothing compared to say, today’s US reserves vs. debt leverage), the lack of reserves caused foreign speculators to fleece the Drachma/dollar exchange rate. Bond yields blew out. Borrowing costs shot up. 

So in March 1932, the League of Nation’s (the precursor bank bailout entity to the ECB/IMF) agreed to provide a loan to service Greece’s debt in return for – wait for it - austerity measures. Unlike today, the government said ‘hell no.’ Instead, in April, 1932, it floated the Drachma - which devalued quickly. It also declared a public debt moratorium, and increased infrastructure spending to strengthen its economy. It negotiated repayment terms with creditors for overdue interest.  By 1934, agriculture and industrial production rose, the currency was more stable, employment increased, and the budget balanced.

The situation is different now. Though national Greek banks registered relatively few domestic loan losses in 2009 ( a fact unrecognized by the bailout supporters), they did begin taking losses in their trading books due to various international bets. Their borrowing and margin costs rose sharply and quickly with each rating downgrade which increased their trade losses, and kept them from extending or renegotiating loans locally, which caused more economic pain for the population.

Greece would have been better off, had it not suffered a rapid series of downgrades and been pulverized by subsequent hot-money flight and pressure. Despite a clear warning from the Central Bank of Greece in late 2009 (when Greece was critical, but breathing) that it could sustain its costs if they didn’t rise egregiously, Moody’s (and later others) cut Greece’s sovereign debt rating from A1 to A2 in December, 2009.  From that point on, the international banking community went into ravage mode, fast.

Moody's cut Greece’s debt again, to A3 in April, 2010, to Ba1 (junk) in June, 2010, and to B1 in March, 2011. Three months later, Greece’s rating was cut to Caa1. By September, 2011 the six biggest Greek banks were downgraded to Caa2, a smidge above default levels, crushing national credit flow to the population.

When any country is downgraded from single A to junk within 18 months, it has to issue more expensive debt to stay even, which by definition, makes the credit-worthiness of its bonds decline.  As in any country, Greece's banks are big buyers of its government bonds. They also use those bonds as collateral for other borrowing  and trades - with each other – and with  international banks.

As Greek banks weakened and borrowing costs soared, their ability to buy Greek bonds from their own government diminished, which weakened the value of government debt. Circularly, Greek banks took further hits for holding the devalued Greek bonds and thus become weaker - further reducing their ability to sustain local needs.

That is why the Greek government wants to bolster its now junk-rated banks (in addition to the money that banks are getting directly from bailout-for-austerity loans) and foreign ones, at the cost of hurting the population.  But since the economy (even at its healthiest level ever) can’t sustain its bailout borrowing costs (as opposed to its operating costs which would have been payable without the increased rates and bailout principle mixed in), this is an unstoppable downward spiral.

Greece’s GDP has contracted 13% (by 7% in the last quarter of 2011) from a late 2008 record high. (By comparison, the United Kingdom’s GDP has fallen by 20% in the same period, and though its unemployment rate has risen, its borrowing costs remain manageably low, making it cheaper to sustain its banks.) Greece’s savings rate at 7.5% is at three decade lows (but still higher than that of the US).

Meanwhile, Greece’s debt to GDP ratio is 160%. (It hovered around 100% from 1994 through 2008.) The unemployment rate at 20.9%, and the youth unemployment rate at 48%, has doubled since January 2008. There is nothing to indicate it won’t keep rising.

Money continues fleeing Greek banks, bonds, and stocks, as citizens try to preserve what they can, and foreign speculators play a game of chicken with bailout providers. The Greek stock market stands at just one-fifth of its January 2008 level. Ten year government bond yields are at 33%, compared to 5% just two years ago.

The speed and intensity of Greece’s decline reflects nothing short of an international mafia-style hit.

The majority of Greek workers didn’t break the government’s back, even if a very small subset strained it. Further, the more bailout measures forced on Greece, the more its economy will be ravaged to repay them.  After four rounds of austerity, nationwide protests, $110 billion Euros in IMF and ECB bailouts, escalating interest rates driving borrowing costs higher and choking credit, a downgrade to junk, a Prime Minister replacement, and now another big bailout, Greece’s tragedy is just beginning.

Yet lessons from the Great Depression exist. By floating the Drachma (the equivalent of leaving the Euro), negotiating individually with creditors (telling banks to back off), and increasing internal public focus (the opposite of what's going on now) Greece was able to stabilize more quickly than larger European countries. It’s not entirely too late to try again: but it requires the currently unimaginable: a political will that is population – rather than bank – oriented.