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Europe’s High-Risk Gamble

CAMBRIDGE – The Greek government needs to escape from an otherwise impossible situation. It has an unmanageable level of government debt (150% of GDP, rising this year by ten percentage points), a collapsing economy (with GDP down by more than 7% this year, pushing the unemployment rate up to 16%), a chronic balance-of-payments deficit (now at 8% of GDP), and insolvent banks that are rapidly losing deposits.

The only way out is for Greece to default on its sovereign debt. When it does, it must write down the principal value of that debt by at least 50%. The current plan to reduce the present value of privately held bonds by 20% is just a first small step toward this outcome.

If Greece leaves the euro after it defaults, it can devalue its new currency, thereby stimulating demand and shifting eventually to a trade surplus. Such a strategy of “default and devalue” has been standard fare for countries in other parts of the world when they were faced with unmanageably large government debt and a chronic current-account deficit. It hasn’t happened in Greece only because Greece is trapped in the single currency.

The markets are fully aware that Greece, being insolvent, will eventually default. That’s why the interest rate on Greek three-year government debt recently soared past 100% and the yield on ten-year bonds is 22%, implying that a €100 principal payable in ten years is worth less than €14 today.