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Why Greece Will Default

CAMBRIDGE – Greece will default on its national debt. That default will be due in large part to its membership in the European Monetary Union. If it were not part of the euro system, Greece might not have gotten into its current predicament and, even if it had gotten into its current predicament, it could have avoided the need to default.

Greece’s default on its national debt need not mean an explicit refusal to make principal and interest payments when they come due. More likely would be an IMF-organized restructuring of the existing debt, swapping new bonds with lower principal and interest for existing bonds. Or it could be a “soft default” in which Greece unilaterally services its existing debt with new debt rather than paying in cash. But, whatever form the default takes, the current owners of Greek debt will get less than the full amount that they are now owed.

The only way that Greece could avoid a default would be by cutting its future annual budget deficits to a level that foreign and domestic investors would be willing to finance on a voluntary basis. At a minimum, that would mean reducing the deficit to a level that stops the rise in the debt-to-GDP ratio.

To achieve that, the current deficit of 14% of GDP would have to fall to 5% of GDP or less. But to bring the debt-to-GDP ratio to the 60% level prescribed by the Maastricht Treaty would require reducing the annual budget deficit to just 3% of GDP – the goal that the eurozone’s finance ministers have said that Greece must achieve by 2012.