Will Greece Play Ball to Save Itself?

John Mauldin |

Collateral damage. Unintended consequences. Friendly fire. Certainly no one intended to have a global banking meltdown when they let Lehman Bros. go under.

Now we’re watching another Greek drama that could have significant unintended consequences – far beyond anything the market has priced in today. Then again, maybe not. Maybe the market is right this time. When we enter unknown territory, who knows what we will find? Fertile valleys and treasure, or deserts and devastation? Today we look at the situation in Europe and ponder what we don’t know. Greece provides a wonderful learning opportunity.

At the end of this letter I’ll mention our Strategic Investment Conference, which will be in San Diego, April 30–May 2. This week we have confirmations from George Friedman of Stratfor and Bill White, former chief economist at the Bank for International Settlements. The conference is shaping up to be the best ever. You can see the rest of the speakers at the end of the letter.

Greece in a Nutshell

Let’s see if we can briefly summarize the situation in Greece. When Greece plunged into crisis three to four years ago, its debt-to-GDP ratio was about 120%. Greek interest rates rose precipitously as investors began to be concerned as to whether they would actually get their money back. The interest rate on the Greek 10-year bond went to 48.6%.

Everybody agreed that Greece couldn’t actually pay that debt; and since so much of it was owed to French and German banks (with not an insubstantial amount owed to Italian banks and those in other countries), the Eurozone decided to bail out Greece, which was a backdoor way of bailing out their own banks. (Seriously, you can go to the IMF minutes, in which they admit that the bailout was about saving the banks and the rest of Europe, not about Greece. Cyprus was cut loose when it would have been a rounding error for the EU to save it – but there were no European banks involved. (The lesson every politician should learn from this is that if you think you’re going to need a bailout someday, make sure your banks owe everybody else a lot of money.)

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, and Greek interest rates fell to even lower levels than before the crisis, as you can see on the chart above. Meanwhile, because the solution forced Greece into a depression that reduced GDP by 25%, saw unemployment rise to 25% (nearly 60% among youth), forced Greeks (at least some of them) pay their taxes, and obliged the Greek government to try to balance its budget (kind of, sort of), the debt simply got worse. Now debt-to-GDP is 175%. If the Greeks couldn’t pay their debt at 120%, they have zero chance of paying it at 175%.

Eventually, Greek voters noticed that the agreement with the Troika (the ECB, the IMF, and the European Commission) didn’t seem to be working for them, so last month they voted in a new government that promised to change the agreement. The party that won the election, Syriza, had made lots and lots of promises about how they would make those mean old Germans back down and fork over the money. If we threaten to not pay the debt, the new government assured its citizens, the Europeans will give us more money, and we can even make them change the agreement. Of course, if the Greeks don’t get more money their system will be completely bankrupt, and their economy will collapse even further. (The technical economics term is that their economy will be screwed.)

This threat is somewhat like holding a gun to your own head and threatening to commit suicide if you don’t get your way. This is generally not a workable strategy when you are asking the politicians of other countries to pay a lot of money to keep you alive, especially when you are not very popular with the voters who elected those politicians. However, the new Greek government seems to think this is a perfectly reasonable bargaining tactic. Their new finance minister has written five books on game theory. It seems he has negotiating theory down pat, but in practice things are not working out according to his theory.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click hereImportant Disclosures

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