The IMF's Road to Ruin?

Leo Kolivakis's picture

Published in Pension Pulse.

Mark
Weisbrot writes in counterpunch on the IMF's Road to Ruin:

Latvia has
experienced the worst two-year economic downturn on record, losing more
than 25 percent of GDP. It is projected to shrink further during the
first half of this year, before beginning a slow recovery, in which the
International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that it will not reach even
its 2006 level of output by 2015 – nine years later.

 

With 22 percent unemployment, a
sharp increase in emigration and cuts to education funding that will
cause long-term damage, the social costs of this trajectory are also
high.

 

By keeping its currency pegged to the
euro, the government gives up the opportunity to allow a depreciation
that would stimulate growth by improving the trade balance. But even
more importantly, maintaining the peg means that Latvia cannot use
expansionary monetary policy, or expansionary fiscal policy, to get out
of recession. (The United States has used both: in addition to its
fiscal stimulus and cutting interest rates to near zero, it has created
more than 1.5 trillion dollars since the recession began).

 

Some who believe that doing the opposite of what rich
countries do – i.e. pro-cyclical policies -- can work point to
neighboring Estonia as a success story. Estonia has kept its currency
pegged to the Euro, and like Latvia is trying to accomplish an “internal
devaluation.” In other words, with a deep enough recession and
sufficient unemployment, wages and prices can be pushed down. In theory
this would allow the economy to become competitive again, even while
keeping the (nominal) exchange rate fixed.

 

But
the cost to Estonia has been almost as high as in Latvia. The economy
has shrunk by nearly 20 percent. Unemployment has shot up from about 2
percent to 15.5 percent. And recovery is expected to be painfully slow:
the IMF projects that the economy will grow by just 0.8 percent this
year. Amazingly, by 2015 Estonia is projected to still be less welloff
than it was in 2007. This is an enormous cost in terms of lost actual
and potential output, as well as the social costs associated with high
long-term unemployment that will accompany this slow recovery. And
despite the economic collapse and a sharp drop in wages, Estonia’s real
effective exchange rate was the same at the end of last year as it was
at the beginning of 2008 – in other words, no “internal devaluation”
had occurred.

 

Yet Estonia is being held up as a
positive example, even used to attack economists who have criticized
pro-cyclical policies in Latvia. The reason is that Estonia has not had
the swelling deficit and debt problems that Latvia has had in the
downturn. Its public debt of 7 percent of GDP is a small fraction of
the EU average of 79 percent, and its budget deficit for 2009 was just
1.7 percent of GDP. It is therefore on its way to join the Euro zone,
perhaps adopting the Euro at the beginning of next year.

 

How did Estonia manage to avoid a large increase in its
debt during this severe downturn? First, the government had accumulated
assets during the expansion, amounting to some 12 percent of GDP; and
it was also running a budget surplus when the recession hit. And it has
received quite a bit in grants from the European Union: In 2010, the
IMF projects an enormous 8.3 percent of GDP in grants, with 6.7 percent
of GDP the prior year.

 

Greece, unfortunately, is not being offered any grants
from the European Union or the IMF. Their plan for Greece is all about
pain and punishment. And with a public debt of 115 percent of GDP and a
budget deficit of 13.6 percent, Greece will be forced to make spending
cuts that will not only have drastic social consequences but will
almost certainly plunge the country deeper into recession.

 

This is a train going in the wrong direction, and once
you go down this track there is no telling where the end will be.
Greece – like Latvia and Estonia – will be at the mercy of external
events to rescue its economy. A rapid, robust rebound in the European
Union – which nobody is projecting – could lift these countries out of
their slump with a huge boost in demand for their exports, and capital
inflows as in the bubble years. Or not: Western European banks still
have hundreds of billions of bad loans to Central and Eastern Europe
from the bubble years. Some big shoes could still drop that would
depress regional growth even below the slow recovery that is projected
for the Euro zone. Germany, which has been dependent on exports for all
of its growth from 2002-2007, could continue to soak up the regional
trade benefits of a Euro zone and/or world recovery.

 

No matter how you slice it,
these 19th-century-brutal pro-cyclical policies don’t make sense. They
are also grossly unfair, placing the burden of adjustment most squarely
on poor and working people. I would not wish Estonia’s “success” on
any population, simply because they avoided a debt run-up and are on
track to join the Euro. They may find, like Greece – as well as Spain,
Ireland, Portugal and Italy – that the costs of adopting a currency
that is overvalued for a country’s level of productivity are
potentially quite high over the long run, even after these economies
eventually recover.

 

The European Union and the
IMF have the money and the ability to engineer a recovery based on
counter-cyclical policies in Greece as well as the Baltic states. If it
involves a debt restructuring – or even a haircut for the bondholders -
so be it. No government should accept policies that tell them they
must bleed their economy for an indeterminate time before it can
recover.

But the problem is the
bondholders do not want haircuts or debt restructuring. So Greece and
other "PIIGS" are facing the stark reality of the IMF's wrath.

In
my
last comment
, I wrote the revolts going on in Greece will likely
spread throughout Europe, threatening the very existence of the
Eurozone. While there is no question that Greece needs to reform its tax
system, pension system, and public sector, the reality is that
austerity measures will impose undue hardship on workers who had nothing
to do with engineering the global credit crisis.

As clashes
between protestors and police erupt in Greece
in a May Day mayhem, I can't help
thinking that maybe it's time for Greece to default, negotiate a haircut
with bondholders, and explore other options with Russia and China.
Forget Europe and Germany, solidify your ties with China to work on
alternative energy and developing your ports as a hub for Chinese goods
into Europe. With Russia, Greece can explore developing the oil reserves
in the Aegean.

Tough economic times require tough political
decisions. It's time for Greece to explore all options and stop
being Germany's and the IMF's whipping boy. If the they don't explore
all alternatives, the IMF's road to ruin is right around the corner.

Apart from the videos below, take the time to watch this documentary, The Bankrupt State -
Greece
.