Friday, January 21, 2011

Can Greece be saved?

by Katinka Barysch

Centre for European Reform

January 20, 2011

Will Greece have to restructure its debt? Among most West European economists and investors, this now seems to be a foregone conclusion. The Greeks themselves are not so sure. During a recent visit to Athens, none of the economists and politicians I spoke to thought that restructuring was inevitable or desirable. The Papandreou government looks determined. But to avoid default, Greece would need two things: economic growth and more help from its European neighbours.

Since Greece negotiated its €110 billion financial assistance package with the EU and the IMF last year, it has cut its government deficit by an impressive 6 per cent of GDP. The government has slashed public salaries and pensions, raised VAT and other taxes, and clamped down on ubiquitous tax evasion. Half a dozen big strikes and the occasional outbreak of street fighting notwithstanding, the Greeks have so far remained rather stoic in the face of this unprecedented belt tightening. Most realise that change is needed and hardship inevitable.

The other reason why Greeks have so far stayed calm is that the worst is yet to come. While civil servants, truckers and some other groups felt immediate pain, the population at large has not yet suffered unbearably. After 15 years of rising salaries, most Greeks can cope with an initial drop in income. Those who lose their job or business can usually rely on a tightly knit family network for support.

Greece, however, is not even half way through its deficit cutting programme. The total need for adjustment is 13-15 per cent of GDP. Cutting the first 20 or 30 per cent out of any budget is relatively easy – especially in a budget that contains as much flab as the Greek one. The public sector is overstaffed and, in many places, overpaid; pension entitlements are generous; although 60 per cent of the population lives in the capital, Greece has over 1,000 municipal administrations and 52 regional ones (a new law will cut those numbers by two-thirds); the country’s 150 public hospitals are accounting-free zones, which has contributed to spiralling healthcare costs; public enterprise such as the railways are black holes for government subsidies.


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