Unravelling the Greek basket case

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 20 October 2011

Once again the world is impatiently awaiting a European summit at which once and for all the continent’s problems will be comprehensively solved – or not. If history is anything to go by, we should not set our hopes too high. For modern Greece there has never been a lasting solution.

You may agree or disagree with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s deterministic world view, but it is hard to argue with the philosopher’s grim assessment of governments’ ability to learn: “What experience and history teach is this — that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”

Since these words were written 180 years ago Europe’s dealings with Greece have proved Hegel right time and again. Greece is not a country with temporary economic, fiscal and monetary problems. It is a permanent basket case. Despite this, Europe has never found a way to deal with it.

Since Greece gained independence from Turkey after its war of independence (1821-29), the country has been plagued by recurrent budget crises, frequent state defaults and long periods of being cut off from international capital markets. There was no shortage of attempts to put Greece on a more stable trajectory by integrating it into international monetary arrangements. And yet they all failed eventually.

The first attempt to give modern Greece a convertible silver currency was in 1828. It was suspended only four years later when the budget deficit was so high that the government resorted to printing paper money to pay for the ongoing conflict with Turkey. A return to the silver standard began a few years later but the Greek government continued to borrow heavily from the central bank for its expenditure – hardly a sustainable fiscal arrangement.

After more tumultuous years with yet another departure from silver to paper and back, Greece in 1867 sought refuge in the Latin Monetary Union, one of the forerunners of today’s euro currency.

Effectively, LMU was a gold and silver-backed monetary union with the French franc at the centre, and Greece hoped to benefit from the monetary stability it offered. Being part of a big monetary union with many other European nations also gave it access to deeper capital markets.

From a Greek point of view, it was perfectly understandable why they were so keen to join the club. The only question is why the other members of LMU admitted Greece despite its poor economic structures.

Not even observers closer to the historic events could see the point of Greek membership. In his ‘History of the Latin Monetary Union’ report, University of Chicago economist Henry Parker Willis summed it up nicely, and it is worth quoting at length:

“It is hard to see why the admission of Greece to the Latin Union should have been desired or allowed by that body. In no sense was she a desirable member of the league. Economically unsound, convulsed by political struggles, and financially rotten, her condition was pitiable. Struggling with a burden of debt, Greece was also endeavouring to maintain in circulation a large amount of inconvertible paper. She was not territorially a desirable adjunct to the Latin Union, and her commercial and financial importance was small. Nevertheless her nominal admission was secured, and we may credit the obscure political influences … with being able to effect what economic and financial considerations could not. Certainly it would be hard to understand on what other grounds her membership was attained.”

Replace ‘Latin Union’ with ‘European Monetary Union’ and the paragraph quoted above could have been published today. In fact, it was published in 1901. Already back then, Willis came to the conclusion that monetary union in Europe did not work, which again sounds like a prophecy of things to come:

“The Latin Union as an experiment in international monetary action has proved a failure. Its history serves merely to throw some light upon the difficulties which are likely to be encountered in any international attempt to regulate monetary systems in common. From whatever point of view the Latin Union is studied, it will be seen that it has resulted only in loss to the countries involved.”

One of LMU’s problems was Greece. The country had introduced paper money that was only valid domestically and it also reduced the gold and silver content of its coins in violation of international agreements. No wonder that other LMU members became increasingly frustrated by Greece’s refusal to play by the rules.

The Swiss ambassador to Paris allegedly once complained that monetary union with Greece was an ‘unhappy marriage’ from which there was no easy escape. Eventually, however, the other LMU countries lost patience and ordered Greek coins retired in 1908. Effectively, they kicked Greece out of the union because they were fed up with it.

Greece then had to readjust its monetary policy and managed to return to LMU in 1910 under a gold standard, but by then the LMU was already fragile. Four years later, the union was effectively abandoned at the start of World War I and formally dissolved in 1927.

After LMU, Greece’s monetary history remained a roller-coaster. The drachma devalued and became pegged to the sterling in 1928. It devalued again before being pegged to the US dollar in 1953. In 1975 it was floated and devalued immediately, followed by big devaluations in 1983 and 1985. Only in preparation for the euro did the Bank of Greece eventually announce a ‘hard drachma’ policy in 1995, but its entry into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism required yet another devaluation.

After this turbulent monetary history of Greece, it was surprising (to say the least) how easily Greece managed to become part of the eurozone. Either Greece had fundamentally changed its whole economic system as grown over two centuries overnight or Greece’s European partners had not learned their lessons from history.

This weekend, European leaders will once more decide on how to deal with Greece. It looks as if even in case of a Greek default, which now looks like a certainty, the country could remain a member of the eurozone.

Rumours have it that Hegel is laughing in his grave.

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