Wednesday, June 29, 2011

West heads to a Greek tragedy, too

To boil it down, the reason Greece is in so much trouble is that every Greek wanted a government that did all the expensive things governments do, but none wanted to pay tax.

Greece's politicians did not have the courage to tell their people that, in the end, you cannot have one without the other.

The Greek government ran budget deficits for year after year, racking up more and more government debt, eventually doing dodgy deals to disguise the amount of that debt until - surprise, surprise - the day of reckoning arrived.

Greece is now in the hands of its bank manager and - another surprise - he is not inclined to be gentle or reasonable.

The ostensible reason the rest of Europe is more worried than sympathetic is Greece's membership of the euro currency group and the knowledge that a lot of their own banks have lent to its government. That, plus the fact that Ireland and Portugal are in similar dire straits.

Were Greece to default on its sovereign (government) debt, it could touch off a financial tsunami - driven as much by fear as logic - that swept up the whole of Europe and even reached across the Atlantic to America.

But, really, why should the major advanced economies of the world be so worried about the fate of a piddling country like Greece? Because their own noses are not clean. They are not as far down the track as Greece and the others, but they, too, have been running big budget deficits year after year, building ever-increasing government debt.

They, too, have not had the courage to tell their voters that government benefits have to be paid for with higher taxes.

Australia used the long boom before the global financial crisis to run successive budget surpluses and so pay off all our net federal government debt, but the United States, Japan, Britain, Italy and various other European countries continued building up big government debts.

Then, when the financial crisis struck, they borrowed huge sums to bail out their teetering banks and, to a lesser extent, to stimulate their deeply recessed economies. Put that on top of their existing high levels of debt and even the mightiest economies of the world are in too deep.

In most of the leading economies, the ratio of government debt to gross domestic product will have risen by 2014 to the region of 100 per cent of GDP, compared with 60 to 70 per cent before the crisis. Japan, which started with a high government debt ratio because of its 1990s economic crisis, will end up with a figure of about 240 per cent by 2014.

This explains the stern warning the Bank for International Settlements, the central banks' central bank, issued at the weekend. The major advanced economies should not just be worried about Greece, it said, they should be worried about themselves. If the huge debt levels of the major economies prompt the world financial markets to wonder if those debts will be honoured, so that the markets take a set against sovereign debt in general, the majors, too, will be in big trouble.

But as the British economist Dr Diane Coyle reminds us in her new book, The Economics of Enough, it is worse than that.

We have known for years that the major advanced economies are facing immense pressure on their budgets from the ageing of their populations. They are committed to generous pension payments and healthcare spending for their retiring baby boomers at a time when, for many countries, their populations will be falling.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has estimated that, within a decade, the government of the average member country will need to borrow 5 per cent of gross domestic product a year more than it does at present.

The ideal way to get on top of your debts is to trade your way out. Keep the income coming in, hold down your expenses and use the difference to pay down the principal. What makes it hard is the continuing big interest payments you have to meet before you can reduce the principal. Once your bankers lose faith in you, they may well increase the interest rate you are paying to cover their heightened risk.

For governments it is even harder. If they start from a position of annual deficit, they have to slash spending and raise taxes just to return the budget to balance and so stop adding to the principal. To get the budget into surplus - and so have money to reduce the principal - they have to cut spending and raise taxes even further.

But the more governments cut their spending and raise taxes, the more they slow the growth of their economies. And the more slowly their economies grow, the more slowly their tax revenue grows and the higher is their spending on dole payments, making it that much harder to get back to surplus.

The trouble with bank managers is that when finally they lose patience with you, they become quite unreasonable, imposing requirements and restrictions that actually make it harder for you to repay your debt. And when the "bank manager" takes the form of a herd of anonymous traders in global financial markets, their actions can be destructive and even self-defeating.

No matter how deep the problems of the developed world, it will survive. But these seemingly prosperous countries - which have gone for many years falsely inflating their prosperity by borrowing from the future - are reaching their day of reckoning.

Even if they avoid another financial crisis, they are set for a protracted period of austerity and relative penury, with their economies growing only slowly for many years. They have not woken up to this yet, but they will.