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A New Deal for Debt Overhangs?

CAMBRIDGE – The International Monetary Fund’s acknowledgement that Greece’s debt is unsustainable could prove to be a watershed moment for the global financial system. Clearly, heterodox policies to deal with high debt burdens need to be taken more seriously, even in some advanced countries.

Ever since the onset of the Greek crisis, there have been basically three schools of thought. First, there is the view of the so-called troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF), which holds that the eurozone’s debt-distressed periphery (Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain) requires strong policy discipline to prevent a short-term liquidity crisis from morphing into a long-term insolvency problem.

The orthodox policy prescription was to extend conventional bridge loans to these countries, thereby giving them time to fix their budget problems and undertake structural reforms aimed at enhancing their long-term growth potential. This approach has “worked” in Spain, Ireland, and Portugal, but at the cost of epic recessions. Moreover, there is a high risk of relapse in the event of a significant downturn in the global economy. The troika policy has, however, failed to stabilize, much less revive, Greece’s economy.

A second school of thought also portrays the crisis as a pure liquidity problem, but views long-term insolvency as an outside risk at worst. The problem is not that the debt of countries on the eurozone’s periphery is too high, but that it has not been allowed to rise nearly high enough.