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After the Greek Default

CAMBRIDGE – The Greek government, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund are all denying what markets perceive clearly: Greece will eventually default on its debts to its private and public creditors. The politicians prefer to postpone the inevitable by putting public money where private money will no longer go, because doing so allows creditors to maintain the fiction that the accounting value of the Greek bonds that they hold need not be reduced. That, in turn, avoids triggering requirements of more bank capital.

But, even though the additional loans that Greece will soon receive from the European Union and the IMF carry low interest rates, the level of Greek debt will rise rapidly to unsustainable levels. That’s why market interest rates on privately held Greek bonds and prices for credit-default swaps indicate that a massive default is coming.

And a massive default, together with a very large sustained cut in the annual budget deficit, is, in fact, needed to restore Greek fiscal sustainability. More specifically, even if a default brings the country’s debt down to 60% of GDP, Greece would still have to reduce its annual budget deficit from the current 10% of GDP to about 3% if it is to prevent the debt ratio from rising again. In that case, Greece should be able to finance its future annual government deficits from domestic sources alone.

But fiscal sustainability is no cure for Greece’s chronically large trade deficit. Greece’s imports now exceed its exports by more than 4% of its GDP, the largest trade deficit among eurozone member countries. If that trade gap persists, Greece will have to borrow the full amount from foreign lenders every year in the future, even if the post-default budget deficits could be financed by borrowing at home.