Moral Hazard and the Future of the Eurozone

The blame game

I greatly sympathise with the argument that Greece and its citizens have been through the meat grinder, otherwise known as austerity, in the last six years. But this is categorically not because of the EU, the euro, the Troika or Germany. It is down to Greece and the Greeks. Ask the Britons about their own version of austerity, which is nowhere near its end stage with a further GBP 50 bln of cuts in public expenditure scheduled in the next five years. Britain is in the EU but not in the euro, however, there are similarities in the causes that have led to the austerity that both countries are facing for the foreseeable future. The difference is that Britain retains control over its currency and interest rates and is able to manipulate both, while still needing to undergo a painful process of austerity. Despite the most serious economic and social stresses and strains since WWII, the political parties are consistent about the journey in the next five-year term of office.

Contradictions galore

The Greeks chose to join the EU and the euro. In their last two general elections, they have chosen to remain in both. They must either live with the consequences or leave one or both. If Greece chooses to stay in the euro, the only option is to submit to the process of internal devaluation so as to regain competitiveness. Greece can choose to leave the euro but it knows full well that it will still have to submit to a different and rather more unpredictable form of pain that would follow as surely as night follows day. What Greece cannot do is to continue to want to have it both ways, namely to blame everyone else, row back completely from its obligations and totally unshackle itself from any conditionality connected with on-going eurozone support.

I have already written two other posts about the future of the eurozone, centred on Greece and the current phase of uncertainty about the future of Europe:

  • The first focuses on Syriza and its commitments, which are contradictory and impossible to achieve given Greece’s current financial circumstances. It has also chosen a completely unsuitable coalition partner, when it had various more reasonable options. This is a serious miscalculation by its Fine Young Radical leadership.
  • The second focuses on the demands of the Greek leadership, which amounts to the world’s biggest game of chicken. The Greeks are assuming that the rest of the eurozone will blink first and simply cave-in to its demands so as to keep Greece in the euro, avoid contagion in the eurozone and possibly save the EU project as a whole. The new Greece wants to have its euro cake and eat it at the same time, but at the expense of all the other eurozone countries that have been standing by it through various rescue schemes. This approach is inconsistent with the principle that rescue packages must be time-limited, clearly earmarked and subject to conditionality otherwise, they become permanent transfers, which are illegal under both EU and national constitutional law.

Moral hazard and financial crises

This post focuses on the third reason why the Greek will, in the end, be unable to bounce the other eurozone countries into agreeing to its demands, leading ultimately to an abandonment of its major electoral platform. That reason is “moral hazard”, a pervasive and inevitable feature of the financial system and of the economy. Moral hazard arises when a contract or financial arrangement creates incentives for the party(ies) involved to behave against the interest of others.

Many of these moral hazards involve increased risk-taking: if I can take risks that you have to bear, then I may as well take them; but if I have to bear the consequences of my own risky actions, I will act more responsibly. Thus, inadequate control of moral hazards often leads to socially excessive risk-taking—and excessive risk-taking is certainly a recurring theme in the current financial crisis.

Turning back to the latest eurozone crisis, it is not so hard to see where the moral hazard arises from the Greek stance.

Greece, as well as the other countries bailed out by the eurozone countries, namely Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus, have benefited tremendously from being members of the EU in the first instance, as well as the ultra-low interest rates and other advantages of being part of the euro. All experienced sustained growth which delivered much higher levels of income and prosperity. The cause of the problems they commonly face was almost entirely self-imposed: they borrowed too much, paid themselves too much, relied on the construction sector too much and deregulated too much, all of which fuelled their economic growth until the bubble burst.  They can blame the banks and the fatcat banksters, they can blame the government, they can blame the establishment and clientelist elites, they can blame the EU, they can blame the euro, they can blame the troika, they can blame the Germans and they can blame the immigrants… and they certainly do. But facts are facts. Citizens borrowed too much, spent too much, focused too little on productivity, competitiveness and innovation, and kept voting-in politicians for more of the same. They did this for generations prior to even joining the EU and the advent of the euro, then accelerated the process until the music inevitably stopped.

To blame the EU and the eurozone countries for their plight, as Greece is currently, amounts to wilful collective amnesia. The Greeks want to stay in the EU and euro. They have taken on obligations connected with the various euro rescue packages which they now wish to roll back. There is no doubt that there has been and continues to be massive suffering and not just in Greece. I am all for finding solutions that generate economic development that allows Greece and others to turn the corner as soon as possible. I am all for productive, long-term investment. Greece desperately needs this, as does the rest of Europe.

There is no such thing as a free lunch

But I am not for debt forgiveness combined with rolling back all the commitments that the new Greek leadership insists upon. The reason is that it would amount to a permanent transfer union from all other eurozone countries to Greece, something which is not only forbidden but also increases moral hazard. If the other eurozone countries are expected to assume the resulting risk, then it cannot work. If I were Greek, I would be thrilled to reduce my own burdens while at the same time increasing my pension, my wages, my social benefits and all the rest of it, knowing that someone else will foot the bill. I would certainly agree with the thinking: “Let the strong eurozone countries carry the burden. They can afford it. I have suffered enough.”

This is at the one and same time totally logical and yet totally unconscionable, but it is precisely what would happen. Once the Greeks are granted their 50% debt relief and released from the conditionality of the eurozone rescue packages why should the country reform itself as the new Greek leadership promises? More importantly, why should the rot stop there? It is quite clear that the Podemos movement in Spain is carefully watching developments and others also look on with great interest. Once the principle of debt relief and release from conditionality is established, what is likely to happen at the next general election in those countries? If other anti-austerity parties are elected, would they not reasonably expect similar treatment from the eurozone countries?

It might be possible to absorb the resulting losses and implied on-going costs in the case of Greece, but the euro game would be up soon after. No one could afford it. This applies to Germany as much as to any other eurozone country that has been backstopping the various eurozone rescue packages.

I am resident of Germany and a taxpayer there and I can assure you that I do not fancy this scenario at all. You can take it for granted that my neighbours, no matter how Europhile they may be, care for it even less. While they may go on holiday to other countries of the EU, they have not lived and worked elsewhere and therefore do not have the friendships and family networks that I do and even I am dubious about this future. Germans are financially conservative not by nature but as a direct result of horrific experiences with financial and other catastrophes within living memory. Its ageing population structure simply reinforces this tendency. If moral hazard takes hold in the eurozone, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Germany might experience a rapid and pronounced disenchantment with the EU and the euro. Were this to occur, it would be an unmitigated disaster for Europe.

I believe the new Greek government will fail with most of its contradictory anti-austerity drive. Its programme is completely unrealistic (except for their insistence that austerity must be counteracted with a pro-growth, productive investment programme), EU and national constitutional law forbid a transfer union and the obvious moral hazard connected with all other eurozone countries mean that this simply cannot be accepted.

The current Greek position would directly increase moral hazard in the EU to an unprecedented degree. If other countries were to follow suit, moral hazard will reach hitherto unimaginable levels. If I take a risk, I should bear the consequences. But if I take a risk at someone else’s expense, then it becomes moral hazard and I would consider this new EU and eurozone, where I would have to pay on an on-going basis for other countries’ decisions, to be little short of an economic nightmare. I would be in hock to third parties for the rest of my life, as would my children and my grandchildren.

I would remind the Greek Fine Young Radical leadership, as well as all the economists out there pushing for the eurozone to give-in to the Greek’s apparently reasonable anti-austerity, pro-growth demands, of a universal truth: there is no such thing as a free lunch. Someone will have to pay for it and I have no intention to be paying lunch for complete strangers from elsewhere in the EU for the foreseeable future.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


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