All entries for Wednesday 23 May 2012

May 23, 2012

Greece: Can’t Pay/Won’t Pay?

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How much can one country squeeze out of another? I was prompted to think about this on Monday, when I spoke in Rotterdam at the launch of a major new book: Occupied Economies: An Economic History of Nazi-Occupied Europe, 1939-1945, by Hein Klemann (a Dutch historian) and Sergei Kudryashov (a Russian historian).

The main story of the book is how Germany extracted resources from occupied Europe that paid for one third of its war costs – and the consequences for the countries that paid. When you read history, it’s natural also to think about the present: what has changed, and what is the same. So, I thought about Greece.

Seventy years ago, Greece was under German occupation. Between 1942 and 1944, according to Klemann and Kudryashov, Germany took from Greece goods and services worth 3.5 billion Reichsmarks. Per head of the Greek population, this was between RM500 and RM600 per head, which was about the average for Germany’s occupied territories.

That sounds like a lot, but what did it mean to Greece? The back of my envelope shows the following calculation. In 1942, Germany imported external resources worth about 15 per cent of its national income. Klemann and Kudryashov show that Greeks were average contributors. Before the war, Greece’s national income per head of its population was about half Germany’s. So, a sum that in wartime was worth 15 per cent to Germans was worth at least 30 per cent to Greeks. Given Germany's wartime economic expansion, and the likely economic decline of Greece, I guess the upper limit could easily have been half of Greece’s national income in 1942 and 1943.

The point is that Germany’s wartime exploitation of occupied Europe was a very big deal, and Greece was no exception.

Now roll the clock forward seven decades. Look how the scenery has changed. The world is relatively peaceful and world markets are open for business. In Greece, average real incomes are six times the level of 1938. But Greeks are smarting under the national humiliation of being expected to pay for their public debt. Eighty per cent of that debt is held abroad, a large share of it by Germany. But the debt is an obligation that Greece assumed completely voluntarily. The Greeks are not under duress of any kind; the creditors have placed no landing craft on Greek beaches; in Kefalonia, no villagers are held hostage, and no Athenian commuters must show their papers at military checkpoints.

Still, the Greek sense of victimhood is so strong that they are not actually repaying anything at all. Instead, their government is continuing to borrow on the basis of being granted partial forgiveness. The fact that eighty per cent of Greek debt is held abroad implies that Greece should be exporting more than it imports if it wants just to cover the interest on the debt that remains. This year Greece's current account deficit is expected to be 5 per cent of its GDP, so that Greek foreign liabilities are rising, not falling. Meanwhile there is a political stalemate, and the anti-bailout parties (which together form a majority) argue they can slow or reverse the fiscal consolidation required to reduce the rate of new borrowing while keeping the creditors and the European Commission on board and disagreeing with each other about everything else.

Economic history suggests that it is exceptionally difficult to persuade a country to hand over a significant fraction of its national income to foreigners over any sustained period of time. Naked force will do the trick, but nothing less will do.

Today Germany is Europe's creditor. Writing in the Financial Times, my Warwick colleagues Marcus Miller and Robert Skidelsky recently (2012) drew a parallel with Germany's own experience after the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Victorious in the Great War, the Allies imposed a large war indemnity upon Germany. This was mainly counterproductive, arousing German national feeling and resistance to the peace with regrettable consequences.

How much did the Allies actually extract from the German economy under the reparations imposed at Versailles? The accounting comes from a classic paper by Sally Marks (1978). The treaty’s headline figure was 132 billion gold marks, around two and a half times Germany's prewar national income. Of the 132 billion total the Allies themselves never expected to get more than 50 billion (the so-called A and B bonds). Germany paid a first instalment right away by handing over state properties valued at 8 billion; today's analogue might be the transfer of a few Greek islands. Germany paid the next billion in 1921 to get the Allies out of customs posts and an area around Dusseldorf that they continued to occupy. Then, the repayments stopped. In response the French occupied the Ruhr valley in 1923, netting another billion in compulsory deliveries of coal and other stocks. When the French moved out, payments fell away again and were repeatedly rescheduled. At their termination by the Lausanne Convention in 1932, Germany had paid barely 20 billion marks in total. In practice, most of that sum was borrowed from the United States, creating new debts on which Hitler later defaulted. Marks concluded:

The tangled history of reparations remains to confound the historian and also to demonstrate the futility of imposing large payments on nations which are either destitute or resentful and sufficiently powerful to translate that resentment into effective resistance.

Note the terminology, which we'll come back to. "Destitute" = "Can't pay." "Resentful and ... powerful" = "Won't pay."

By modern standards, the Allied occupation of Germany's revenue offices and valuable territories after the Great War looks like an intolerable infringement of national sovereignty. In fact there were many precedents for this, which the Allies merely followed. A recent paper by Kris Mitchener and Marc Weidenmier (2010) analyses 43 such cases from the nineteenth century. Today Greek opinion is inflamed by the idea of a European Commission representative in its budget office; Athens last came under foreign financial supervision in 1898, having defaulted on an indemnity arising from war with Turkey the previous year.

Based on this and other cases, Mitchener and Weidenmeier show that "supersanctions," when the creditor countries applied direct military pressure or directly supervised the debtor's fiscal offices, generally sufficed to restore the debtor's credit by enough to reduce bond yields and allow access to fresh borrowing.

What creates the power of sovereigns to resist their creditors, if direct force is not applied? Writing during the last major international debt crisis, Simon Bulow and Ken Rogoff (1989) argued that sovereign debtors are able to play on their creditors' impatience and desire to rescue something from the situation; faced with the threat of complete default and the need to apply draconian penalties, the creditors will be satisfied with partial compliance. The debtors will pay just enough to keep open their access to fresh borrowing.

The result is the phenomenon of continual rescheduling clearly visible in recent renegotiation of the Greek debt. Indeed it would seem that no one has read Bulow and Rogoff more carefully than Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece's largest anti-bailout faction, the left-wing Syriza Party.

Despite partial default and bailout, Greece remains insolvent. Strictly interpreted, insolvency means that the debtor cannot pay. But the history of sovereign debt and default tells us that “Won’t pay” and “Can’t pay” are hard to tell apart, and it is in the debtor’s interest to make them look the same.

Allied failure to predict and manage this after World War I helped to poison Germany’s international relations and domestic politics in the 1920s. Miller and Skidelsky argue that Germany, which suffered so much after 1919, should not do the same to Greece today. I agree. But a far sighted reconciliation does not look likely, and might not even by welcomed by those Greek politicians who are now happily reinventing the tradition of Greece as a victim of foreign exploiters.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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