The ‘Grexit’ Issue and the Problem of Free Trade By George Friedman
The Greek crisis is moving toward a climax. The issue is actually quite simple. The Greek government owes a great deal of money to European institutions and the International Monetary Fund. It has accumulated this debt over time, but it has become increasingly difficult for Greece to meet its payments. If Greece doesn’t meet these payments, the IMF and European institutions have said they will not extend any more loans to Greece. Greece must make a calculation. If it pays the loans on time and receives additional funding, will it be better off than not paying the loans and being cut off from more?
Obviously, the question is more complex. It is not clear that if the Greeks refuse to pay, they will be cut off from further loans. First, the other side might be bluffing, as it has in the past. Second, if they do pay the next round, and they do get the next tranche of funding, is this simply kicking the can down the road? Does it solve Greece’s underlying problem, which is that its debt structure is unsustainable? In a world that contains Argentina and American Airlines, we have learned that bankruptcy and lack of access to credit markets do not necessarily go hand in hand.
To understand what might happen, we need to look at Hungary. Hungary did not join the euro, and its currency, the forint, had declined in value. Mortgages taken out by Hungarians denominated in euros, Swiss francs and yen spiraled in terms of forints, and large numbers of Hungarians faced foreclosure from European banks. In a complex move, the Hungarian government declared that these debts would be repaid in forints. The banks by and large accepted Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s terms, and the European Union grumbled but went along. Hungary was not the only country to experience this problem, but its response was the most assertive.
A strategy inspired by Budapest would have the Greeks print drachmas and announce (not offer) that the debt would be repaid in that currency. The euro could still circulate in Greece and be legal tender, but the government would pay its debts in drachmas.
The Deeper Questions
In considering this and other scenarios, the pervading question is whether Greece leaves or stays in the eurozone. But before that, there are still two fundamental questions. First, in or out of the euro, how does Greece pay its debts currently without engendering social chaos? The second and far more important question is how does Greece revive its economy? Lurching from debt payment to debt payment, from German and IMF threats to German and IMF threats is amusing from a distance. It does not, however, address the real issue: Greece, and other countries, cannot exist as normal, coherent states under these circumstances, and in European history, long-term economic dysfunction tends to lead to political extremism and instability. The euro question may be interesting, but the deeper economic question is of profound importance to both the debtor and creditors.
In our time, economic and financial questions tend to become moralistic. On one side, the creditors condemn Greek irresponsibility. The European Union has dropped most pretenses about this being a confrontation between the European Union and Greece. It is increasingly obvious that although the European Union has much at stake, in the long term this is about Germany and Greece, and in the short term it has become about the IMF and Greece. Germany feels that the Greeks are trying to take advantage of its good nature, while the IMF has institutionalized a model in which sacrifice is not only an economic tonic to debtors but also a moral requirement. This is not frivolous on the part of Germany and the IMF. If they give Greece some leeway, other debtors will want the same and more. Giving Greece a break could lead to Italy demanding one, and Italy’s break could swamp the system.
On the Greek side, the Syriza party’s leaders are making the decisions. Those leaders have onlylimited room to maneuver. They came to power because the mainstream eurocratic parties had lost their legitimacy. Since 2008, Greek governments appeared to be more concerned with remaining in the eurozone than with the spiraling unemployment rate or a deep salary cut for government workers. That stance can work for a while, if it works. From the Greek public’s point of view, it didn’t; many Greeks say they did not borrow the money and they had no control over how it was spent. They are paying the price for the decisions of others, although in fairness, the Greeks did elect these parties. The Greeks do not want to leave the euro, interestingly. They want to maintain the status quo without paying the price. But in the end, they can’t pay the price, so the discussion is moot.
The Greek government is thus calculating two things. First, would covering the next payment be better or worse than defaulting? Second, will behaving like the eurocratic parties they forced to the wall leave Syriza internally divided and ripe for defeat by a new party? The German calculation has to be whether a default by the Greeks, one that doesn’t cause the sky to fall, would trigger recalculations in other debtor countries, causing a domino effect.
The Future of Free Trade
The more fundamental issue concerns neither the euro nor the consequences of a Greek default. The core issue is the future of the European free trade zone. The main assumption behind European integration was that a free trade zone would benefit all economies. If that assumption is not true, or at least not always true, then the entire foundation of the European Union is cast into doubt, with the drachma-versus-euro issue as a short footnote.
The idea that free trade is beneficial to all sides derives from a theory of the classical economist David Ricardo, whose essay on comparative advantage was published in 1817. Comparative advantage asserts that free trade allows each nation to pursue the production and export of those products in which the nation has some advantage, expressed in profits, and that even if a nation has a wide range of advantages, focusing on the greatest advantages will benefit the country the most. Because countries benefit from their greatest advantages, they focus on those, leaving lesser advantages to other countries for which these are the greatest comparative advantage.
I understate it when I say this is a superficial explanation of the theory of comparative advantage. I do not overstate it when I say that this theory drove the rise of free trade in general, and specifically drove it in the European Union. It is the ideology and the broad outlines of the concept that interest me here, not the important details, as I am trying to get a high-level sense of Europe’s state.
To begin with, the law of comparative advantages does not mean that each country does equally well. It simply means that given the limits of geography and education, each nation will do as well as it can. And it is at this point that Ricardo’s theory both drives much of contemporary