The economic problems of Greece are multiplying

by Shaun Richards

Today is a case of hello darkness my old friend, I have come to talk to you again, as we look at Greece. Yet again we find a case of promised economic recovery turning into another decline although on this occasion it is at least nit the fault of the “rescue” party. The promised recovery was described by the Governor of the Bank of Greece back in February.

According to the Bank of Greece estimates, the Greek economy grew at a rate of 2.2% in 2019 while projections point to growth accelerating to 2.5% in 2020 and 2021, as the catching-up effect, after a long period of recession, through rises in investment and disposable income is projected to counterbalance the effect of the global and euro area slowdown.

Apart from the differences in the years used that could have been written back in 2010 and pretty much was. Maybe no-one should ever forecast 2% or so economic growth for Greece as each time the economy then collapses!

Also Governor Stournaras told us this.

The main causes of the crisis, namely the very large “twin” deficits (i.e. the general government and current account deficits) have been eliminated,

So let us take a look.

Balance of Payments

This morning’s release tells us this.

In June 2020, the current account balance showed a deficit of €1.4 billion, against a surplus of €805 million in June 2019.

So the Governor as grand statements like that tend to do found a turning point except the wrong way. Anyone with any knowledge of 2020 will not be surprised at the cause of this.

This development is mainly attributable to a deterioration in the travel balance and, therefore, the services balance, which was partly offset by an improvement in the balance of goods, as imports of goods decreased more than the respective exports. The primary and the secondary income accounts did not show any significant change.

Let us get straight to the tourism numbers.

The travel surplus narrowed, as non-residents’ arrivals and the corresponding receipts decreased by 93.8% and 97.5%, respectively. Moreover, travel payments dropped by 81.3%. The transport balance also declined, by 39.7%, due to a deterioration in the sea and air transport balances.

Nobody will be especially surprised about this falling off a cliff although maybe with restrictions being eased from mid June the numbers may not have been quite so bad. Also there is the kicker of the impact on Greece’s shipping companies.

Switching to the half-year we see this.

In the first half of 2020, the current account deficit came to €7.0 billion, up by €2.9 billion year-on-year, as the deteriorating services balance and secondary income account more than offset an improvement in the balance of goods and the primary income account.

That is awkward for out good Governor as we note a deficit last year but for our purposes there is something ominous in the goods balance improvement.

The deficit of the balance of goods fell, as imports decreased at a faster pace than exports.

Whilst some of that was the oil trade which was affected by the price fall there was also this.

Non-oil exports of goods declined by 3.9% at current prices (-3.4% at constant prices), while the corresponding imports fell by 10.1% (‑9.5% at constant prices).

Which suggests via the relative import slow down that we have a possible echo of what happened in 2010.

Government Deficit

This was the benchmark set by the Euro area authorities and the IMF. Back in the day they were called the Troika and then the Institutions which provides its own script for events. After all successes do not change their names do they? As for now we see this.

In January-July 2020, the central government cash balance recorded a deficit of €12,767 million, compared to a deficit of €2,432 million in the same period of 2019.

Unsurprisingly revenues are down and expenditure up.

During this period, ordinary budget revenue amounted to €22,283 million, compared to €25,871 million in the corresponding period of last year. Ordinary budget expenditure amounted to €32,423 million, from €29,870 million in January-July 2019.

That does not add up as we note the weasel word “ordinary” which apparently excludes public investment which is over 2.5 billion higher so far this year. Also debt costs are about 700 million higher mostly to “The Institutions”. That looks a little awkward but it seems they have decided to give it back.

(Luxembourg) – The Board of Directors of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) decided today to reduce to zero the step-up margin accrued by Greece for the period between 1 January 2020 and 17 June 2020, as part of the medium-term debt relief measures agreed for the country in 2018. The value of the reduction amounts to €103.64 million.

Additionally, as part of the debt relief measures, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), acting as an agent for the euro area member states and after their approval, will make a transfer to Greece amounting to €644.42 million, equivalent to the income earned on SMP/ANFA holdings.

The air of unreality about this was added to by ESM and EFSF head Klaus Regling who seems to think the Greek economy is recovering.

This is necessary to further support the economic recovery, improve the resilience of the economy and improve the country’s long-term economic potential.

What is he smoking?

ECB

It has stepped in to help with the Greek finances as these days Greece is issuing its own debt again. The ECB is running two QE programmes and the “emergency” PEPP one ( as opposed to the now apparently ordinary PSPP) had at the end of July bought some 10 billion Euros of Greek government bonds,

There was always an implicit gain from ECB QE for Greece in that its bonds would be made to look relatively attractive now it is explicit with the ECB purchases. Indeed it has so far bought more than Greece issued last year.

During 2019, the Hellenic Republic has successfully tapped the international debt capital markets through 4 market
transactions: 3 new bond series (5Y, 7Y, 10Y new issue + tap) for a total amount of € 9bn have been issued, ( Greece PDMA)

Greece was also grateful for the lower borrowing costs.

The average cost of funding for 10-year bonds has decreased from c. 4.4% to c.1.5%, while yields on 3m and 6m T-bills
have recently reached negative values

But I have never heard the ECB being called an insurance and pension fiund before, although it is in line with my “To Infinity! And Beyond! ” theme maybe the longest of long-term investors..

The investor base for Greece Government Bonds (GGBs) has significantly strengthened and broadened with an
increased share of long-term investors, notably insurance and pensions funds.

Just for clarity the PEPP purchases had not begun but the PSPP had.

Debt

The numbers here apparently have changed little but that is because Greece borrowed extra to give itself a cash buffer. So if we allow for that another 7.4 billion Euros were added to the debt pile in the second quarter of this year.

Comment

The saddest part of this is that the present pandemic has added to what was already a Great Depression in Greece. At current prices a GDP of 242 billion Euros in 2008 was replaced by one of 187.5 billion last year. At this point the casual observer might be wondering how a central bank Governor could be talking about a recovery?

But there is more as Greece arrived at the pandemic under another depressionary influence as it planned to run a fiscal surplus and I recall 3.5% of GDP being a target. Now you may notice that the same group of Euro area authorities seem rather keen on fiscal deficits as they have been taking advice from Kylie it would appear.

I’m spinning around
Move outta my way

To my mind the issue revolves around out other main indicator which is the balance of payments. This used to be the role of the IMF before it had French leaders. At the moment the Greek numbers have been hit hard by something it can do nothing about via the impact of lockdown on tourism. Sadly with the rise in cases of Covid-19 elements of that may return, although one of my friends is out there right now doing her best to keep the economy going. We will never know how much better that trajectory of the Greek economy would have been if the focus had been on reform and trade rather than debt and punishment, but we do know it would have been better and maybe a lot better.