Is Greece heading for default?

Content Type
Working Paper
Oxford Economics
Greece has slid into a serious fiscal crisis over the last few months. A ballooning budget deficit and high levels of government debt have raised questions in the minds of investors about the sustainability of the country's public finances. The level of concern among investors can be seen from developments in Greek borrowing costs relative to those in Germany. At the beginning of 2008, the yield on Greek 10-year bonds was only around 0.3% higher than on equivalent German securities, but this gap has now risen to over 3%. This yield spread is at its widest for more than a decade and is by far the largest within the Eurozone. The root cause of Greece's problems is a long period of fiscal indiscipline. In 2009, after years of heavy spending, the budget deficit rose to almost 13% of GDP and the public debt to GDP ratio is set to reach 125% this year. The deteriorating fiscal position has led to a slew of ratings downgrades, and outside the Eurozone Greece's credit rating would probably be in 'junk' territory. On top of the fiscal problems, Greece also suffers from weak external competitiveness. The real exchange rate has appreciated substantially since Greece joined the Eurozone, contributing to a sharp widening in the current account deficit to around 12% of GDP last year. On some estimates, the real effective exchange rate is now around 20% overvalued. As a result Greece now faces a series of policy choices all of which look unpalatable. Within the Eurozone, the only realistic orthodox option is a combination of massive fiscal retrenchment and 'internal devaluation' – forcing down costs relative to those of Greece's competitors. But fiscal cutbacks and cost deflation on the scale required could plunge the country into a deep and prolonged recession and might prove politically and socially unsustainable. The Greek economy is already showing signs of serious stress, with GDP down 2.6% on the year in 2009Q4. The extreme alternatives are default and/or leaving the Eurozone and enacting devaluation. But the political barriers to such moves are immense, and while default and devaluation could ease budgetary and external imbalance problems, they would also cause massive economic and financial disruption and probably a deeper recession in the near-term. Default and devaluation would also risk huge negative contagion effects on the Eurozone and the wider global economy. With Greece's debt approaching €300 billion a default would be the largest sovereign collapse since WWII, dwarfing those in Russia and Argentina. Eurozone banks could face losses of up to €100 billion on top of the heavy writedowns already suffered, risking a renewed Europe-wide credit squeeze. There could also be collapses in demand for the debt of other weaker Eurozone members such as Spain, Portugal and Ireland. World markets for equities, corporate bonds and emerging market debt would also likely be badly affected. There could also be pressure for the major economies to accelerate their fiscal adjustment efforts, given the impact on investor confidence and the scale of their budget deficits. Our estimation results suggest that a Greek default could be a real threat to the progress of the global recovery, cutting growth in the major economies by around 1% per annum compared to our baseline forecast and world growth by 0.6%. Given the potential massive consequences of a Greek default, the pressure for a bailout has been growing. Although there are questions about the legality of such a move, we believe it is possible if the political will exists. Estimation results using the Oxford Model suggest a bailout would be likely to be less economically damaging than a default, even assuming some negative impact from higher bond yields in the core Eurozone countries. The costs of a bailout could rise rapidly, however, if it extended beyond Greece to other troubled countries. A bailout would create a big risk of moral hazard, perhaps inducing fiscal misbehaviour among other Eurozone members or being used by Greece to sidestep the necessary adjustment. To avoid this, any bailout would have to incorporate strict conditionality, perhaps raising serious questions about fiscal sovereignty within the Eurozone. Over the last two weeks, the other EU countries have taken a relatively hard line with Greece, stopping short of announcing explicit financial support and pushing for strong fiscal adjustment measures. Although a bailout remains the most likely outcome if Greece struggles to refinance its debts, there are some signs that political resistance to such a move is growing. The key risk period could be April-May, when a large volume of Greek debt matures.
Economics, Markets, Financial Crisis
Political Geography
Europe, Greece, Argentina