Greece has ceased to make headlines. A year ago, the TV cameras were trained on the protesters thronging the streets of Athens because there were fears that a crisis that had been steadily becoming more acute in the first half of 2015 could result in the single currency splintering.
That threat was removed by a deal that involved a humiliating climbdown by the Syriza-led government. Greece received a bailout, but with harsh conditions attached.
There were three obvious problems with that 2015 deal, which secured Greece its third bailout in five years. The first was that the new dose of austerity would make it more difficult for Greece to emerge from a slump just as severe as that which gripped the US in the 1930s. The second was that Greece’s creditors were making unrealistic assumptions for growth and deficit reduction. The third was that sooner or later the Greek crisis would flare up again. It was a case of when, not if.
It has not all been bad news over the past 12 months. Fears that yields on Greek bonds would soar after the UK’s Brexit vote did not materialise. Some of the tough capital controls that were imposed in the summer of 2015 to protect the banking system have been eased. There has been talk that by next summer it will be possible for the government in Athens to raise money in the world’s financial markets by selling Greek government bonds.
All that said, though, the first two predictions have come true. By last summer, Greece had suffered a five-year slump that was on a par with the damage caused to the US economy in the Great Depression. Yet the country’s creditors thought it was a good idea to suck even more demand out of the economy through spending cuts and tax increases.
The result has been depressingly predictable. Far from there being a resumption of growth, the economy has continued to contract. Greece’s national output was 1.4% lower in the first three months of 2016 than it was a year earlier. Consumer spending was down by 1.3%. Nor, with confidence at rock bottom, is there much prospect of better times. Greece remains deep in recession.
Perpetually weak growth has bedevilled attempts to tackle Greece’s chronic debt problem. Back in May 2010, when the European commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund organised the first bailout, it was assumed that a rapid recovery and tight budget controls would see Greek national debt as a share of gross domestic product fall steadily.
These forecasts proved to be wildly optimistic. As Greece sank deeper and deeper into recession, the debt ratio carried on rising, and now stands at about 180% of GDP.
Unfortunately, lessons have not been learned. The 2015 bailout package assumes that Greece will run a budget surplus, once debt interest payments are excluded, of 3.5% of GDP year in and year out. The IMF, which now has a more realistic assessment of Greece than the commission or the ECB, says few countries have managed to sustain budget surpluses of this size, and that Greece could do so only by further cutting wages and pensions. The IMF also thinks “it is no longer tenable” to imagine that Greece can move from having one of the eurozone’s weakest productivity growth rates to the highest.
The IMF says that without debt relief, Greece’s debt could hit 250% of GDP by the middle of the century. Germany would prefer those discussions to be delayed until after its election in autumn next year. But the chances are that Greece will be back in the headlines before then.