Tag Archive: GDP

Britain’s Productivity Puzzle and Brexit

Britain has a huge challenge. In the fractious lead-up to the Brexit referendum on the 23rd of June 2016, almost everything imaginable is being use for or against the European Union (EU), but on this occasion I am not referring to the EU challenge. I am alluding to the title of this post, namely the productivity of the UK, as this has direct implications for economic growth, wages and ultimately living standards. Given its importance, it should be the No 1 issue in the debate about the future of the UK, except that it is barely touched upon. This is a mistake.

The Theory

Productivity refers to how efficiently inputs (i.e. capital and labour) are used to produce outputs (i.e. goods and services), the best measure of productivity being output per hour. In theory productivity matters a good deal: Britain’s capacity to raise its standards of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to increase its output per worker.

Productivity is also crucial in determining the long-term growth rates of the economy; stronger productivity growth leads directly to faster GDP growth. If this happens, tax revenues increase and budget deficits decrease. Governments have more to spend on public services such as health, housing, school places, GP / hospital capacity, infrastructure, etc. all of which are at the centre of the Brexit discussion. Naturally, the reverse also holds true: with lower productivity. And if Britain’s productivity is lower than its competitors, such as other EU nations, its relative standard of living decreases over time.

Productivity matters a great deal. The Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman is reported to have said that: “Productivity isn’t everything, but it’s nearly everything”. What is the situation in Britain?

Productivity Puzzle

British labour productivity has traditionally grown at around 2% per year since the 1970s. That is not at all bad but the point is that since the global recession began in 2007, Britain´s productivity stagnated and continues to do so almost a decade later. Official reports stress that: “… such a prolonged period of essentially flat productivity is unprecedented in the post-war era”. The Chart below illustrates the trend.

Chart UK Productivity and GDP

Although economic growth has resumed quite strongly since 2013, this is mainly the result of an increase in the total number of hours worked in the UK, rather than rising productivity. What this means is that Britons are working harder to produce the same amount of goods and services than was the case prior to 2007, and much harder than if productivity growth had continued at its 2% annual trend rate. The feeble productivity level leads directly to the stagnation in UK wages and living standards. This is already having significant effects in terms of the on-going package of austerity in Britain, which is being felt across the whole country and is, if anything intensifying. People´s economic pain is much more a consequence of low productivity than of the costs of the EU or the freedom of movement of people (EU immigration).

If Britain’s productivity does not bounce up to the 2% trend, the implications for the economy, public finances and future living standards will be even more severe than is already the case.

International comparisons illustrate just why this is the No. 1 challenge.

Chart International Productivity Comparison

Based on real GDP per hour worked in 2014, the UK was ranked sixth among the Group of Seven (G7) countries, with Germany top and Japan bottom (the Chart below illustrates the issue). UK productivity was 18 percentage points below the average of the other G7 countries, the widest productivity gap since at least 1991. To illustrate the point further, it was 10 percentage points lower than Italy (which is hard for Britons to swallow), 30 percentage points lower than Italy and 36 percentage points lower than Germany. On the basis of output per worker, UK productivity was 19 percentage points below the average for the rest of the G7 in 2014.

The resumed economic growth and low unemployment rate combined with stagnant productivity has led people to talk of the UK’s “productivity puzzle”, as Britain loses ground to its major competitors.

Pumping-up Productivity: Brexit implications

Unlike Eurozone economies, Britain has its own currency and is fully in charge of its monetary policy. Blaming the EU and European immigrants for all its ills is far too easy and convenient. Instead, Britons should take a good, hard look at their own economy and what is required in order to increase productivity not just back to 2%, but ideally above this threshold.

What kinds of solutions are available to Britain in order for it to rise to the productivity challenge? The good news is that there is broad agreement about the main policy options. The bad news is that none of them are quick fixes and most of them will almost certainly not be improved by leaving the EU. The possible solutions include the following:

  • Raise the skills and qualifications of the labour force: the education system has to produce a better educated labour force and employers need to invest more in skills via training, apprenticeships, etc. These are known to increase labour productivity, however, the evidence is that this is not happening sufficiently. This may be part of the reason why Britain has been attracting ready-made, educated and trained migrants from the EU and non-EU countries (academia, R&D, industry, health service, financial sector, etc.). It is doubtful that the UK can immediately raise skills and qualifications to substitute what comes through the EU (the EU labour force is more highly educated in terms of average levels of human capital), thus productivity levels are unlikely to be enhanced by Brexit in the short to medium term. It takes time, investment and planning to systematically build-up the human capital base.
  • Increase investment in technology: the adoption of new technology is a key factor in improving productivity, as illustrated by the advent of computers and the internet in the recent past. A strong focus on generation of innovative products, services and processes would translate into high productivity levels. However, exiting the EU may either slow down this process or increase the investment cost. This is not just because of the potential loss of international collaborative innovation and R&D networks across European countries, which the EU funds. Brexit would also result in uncertainty about trade in the short-term and almost certainly less favourable trade agreements with the remaining EU trade block of 27 countries. This is likely to translate into increased import and export costs for Britain, including of equipment and technology. By opting out of the EU and its 50+ trade agreements, less favourable trade agreements will eventually be negotiated with 120+ countries. If investment in technology becomes more costly, firms may delay or avoid it, so it is unclear if the UK’s productivity levels will be enhanced by Brexit.
  • Increase substitution of capital for labour: if labour becomes cheaper and more freely available, firms may have fewer incentives to invest and may choose to use labour intensive methods, rather than capital-intensive ones. This would result in lower levels of productivity, though jobs and incomes would be maintained, at least for a certain period of time. A surge in productivity would require a reverse in the trend of underinvestment in plant and machinery, as well as physical infrastructure. If Brexit means much less availability and/or more expensive skilled capital, this could spur greater levels of substitution of capital for labour, thus stimulating productivity. At the same time, this might have implications for employment.
  • Improve the morale of workers: during recessions or periods of industrial unrest and low worker morale, productivity tends to fall. By contrast, if workers are motivated and happy, productivity is likely to be higher. The morale of employees can be affected by numerous variables, including but not only wages, bonuses and other monetary incentives. It is also affected by issues such as state of industrial relations, sense of having a stake in the company and enjoyment of the job. These are specific to each nation and enterprise. But to the extent that morale is affected by other factors such as nature of the labour contracts, hours worked, leave of various sorts, etc. Brexit is unlikely to affect morale positively, since many of those factors are influenced by EU rules and regulations (see below) affecting all 28 countries.
  • Minimise rules and regulations: regulations should not impose excessive costs on enterprises and a balance has to be struck between say being able to get rid of poor or disruptive employees and having lax labour market regulations which exploit employees and results in high turnover and demotivation. EU regulations affect health and safety standards, discrimination at work, hours worked, paternity/maternity periods, minimum breaks, minimum paid holiday periods, etc. Brexit might well be good for British employers if regulations are scrapped and labour market flexibility is increased, but would almost certainly come at the expense of employees. Many other regulations are the solely the purview of the British government. Britain has already spawned zero hour contracts which maximise employer flexibility over almost a million employees. It widely acknowledged that Britain already has one of the most deregulated business environments around – some have argued that there is excessive deregulation, for example in the financial sector. Further deregulation would be possible upon Brexit, but it is questionable whether this would necessarily be desirable. It might undermine labour gains, for example, if rules and regulations concerning discrimination, maximum work hours, health and safety, etc. are undermined. These would reduce job security, employer costs and possibly spur productivity, but much would come at the expense of employees.
  • Maximise capacity utilisation: during economic booms, firms tend to squeeze more output out of existing capacity by encouraging people to work overtime, thus increasing labour productivity. In recessions, they may hold on to workers, rather than releasing them even if they are working below capacity, resulting in labour productivity falls. There is some evidence of “labour hoarding” (firms cutting output but keeping labour in reserve for the recovery), which is part of the reason for the productivity puzzle previously discussed. It seems unlikely that leaving the EU will increase capacity utilisation. Britain´s trade balance is already poor, it exports 44% of its goods and services to the EU and Brexit would mean negotiating new, less favourable terms with the other 27 countries of the EU and 120+ countries that the EU has trade agreements with. Rather than maximising capacity utilisation, it is likely that the reverse will happen upon Brexit (less favourable trade agreements, more risk, higher costs, etc.), with negative implications for employment, wages and tax revenue.

The above does not represent a complete list of possible solutions to the British productivity puzzle. Other factors could be considered, such as seeking to rebalance the economy away from services (about 75% of GDP) towards manufacturing (about 10% of GDP).

In 2015, the Government published its productivity plan (Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation), covering issues such as improve transport and digital infrastructure, increase investment, enhance workforce skills, build more houses, move people off welfare and into work, encourage exports, rebalance economy away from London, etc. The 15 point plan is illustrated in the Chart below.

Chart 15 Point Productivity Plan

The productivity plan seems worthwhile implementing but none of it is a quick fix to Britain´s fundamental problem and, on balance, Brexit would not unleash an immediate gain in productivity.

To conclude, the cause of austerity, low productivity and stagnating wages in the UK are first and foremost to do with the UK, not the EU or Europe more generally. The number one priority for the country is to raise the productivity levels, regardless of whether Britain remains in the EU or not. If this happens, the wages, the public expenditure and the standards of living take care of themselves. But it is hard to see just how the UK’s productivity puzzle could be eased by Brexit.

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


To Brexit or not to Brexit: key issues for the EU Referendum

EU Referendum ahead

The British voter will soon be asked to decide on whether Britain will continue to have a future as part of the European Union (EU) or to exit it (i.e. Brexit or British Exist). The EU referendum’s date has not yet been fixed and must happen by 2017, but is widely speculated that it is going to be to be scheduled for mid-2016.

That question that will be put to the British voter is simple but fundamentally important, namely:

  • Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the EU?

The options are either to:

  • Remain a member of the European Union or
  • Leave the European Union

This is a simple question with simple options, but it nevertheless is a historic referendum that will influence the future of the UK (and that of the EU itself) for generations to come.

Brexit the obvious solution?

I am a British citizen who lived, studied and worked in Britain. My parents, sibling and my closest friends remain in Britain. Nevertheless, during the last 20 years, I have lived and worked in numerous countries of the EU and elsewhere. I am married to a German and my business takes me regularly to different parts of the EU, potential future EU countries and beyond. I understand what the feeling is about the EU and that there is frustration with the way the EU is perceived to be interfering with British sovereignty and especially about the freedom of movement of people, which is widely seen to be adding to the social pressures in the country.

If I were about to cast a vote at the forthcoming EU referendum, I would feel apprehensive about it. If I were to believe what a hostile media and populist politicians stress, my gut reaction might be to vote for Brexit and leave the EU. I might not be greatly enamoured by the current state of the UK economy, the ongoing austerity, the decreasing wages and the job insecurity. I might well be hearing about the number of laws and regulations emanating from “Brussels”, which the shorthand for the EU, with the implication that Britain no longer controls its own borders and sovereignty. I might well be tempted to conclude that the EU is indeed to blame.

Furthermore, I might also be frustrated by my inability to get on to the first rang of the housing ladder while others point to migrants from the EU are taking up the supply of housing that I or my children want to make use of in our own country. This might lead me to concur with those that point to the “uncontrolled” borders and the EU migration caused by the freedom of movement of people. A similar argument is applied to the pressures in the health and education systems, and I might also be concerned about the “swarms” of EU migrants taking-up scarce resources that we are entitled to, since we are the ones who are actually paying the taxes while the others jump the queue and coin the market for social benefits.

In short, if I were to believe all of the above, I might be well disposed to giving “Europe” a bloody nose, just as populist politicians and the media are urging me to. I might vote to leave the EU: Britain was great on its own and can be once again.

The real issues

But the British voters are fair and reasonable. Rather than follow their gut reaction, they will want to balance both sides of the equation and be fair and dispassionate in making this historic decision. They will want answers to the following questions:

  • Is the negative portrayal of the EU and all the criticism connected with it correct?
  • Is it too simplistic to say that the EU is to blame for all the challenges in Britain?
  • Is Britain indeed so tied-up by the EU that it is no longer in charge of its own destiny?
  • Are there only costs to being one of 28 member of the EU?

If something sounds too simple to be true (it’s the EU, stupid!), then perhaps it is really is too good to be true. Simple solutions to complex problems are appealing but can the EU really be the fount of all of Britain’s ills and will the country really be better off immediately upon Brexit?

Looking at it through another lens, the fair-minded British voter might ask whether it is reasonable or not to only see “Europe”, “Brussels” and the “European Union” only in a negative light? Can it really be that Britain is only paying in but getting nought out of the EU? And, if things are not quite so black and white, what exactly are those positives that are so rare to hear about? Are the benefits so abstract that the ordinary voter simply cannot grasp them or related to them?

We all instinctively know that there are two sides to every story but the media and the loudest politicians do not excel at presenting the pros and cons. As a Brit with a foot on both camps, I hear a series of populist myths being peddled again and again. I often smell a red herring when I turn a newspaper pager. I often see the EU being used and abused by those who would attack a straw man.

So in making-up my mind about how to vote at the historic EU referendum, as a Brit, I would want to understand the costs as well as the benefits connected with the most important EU issues, namely:

EU costs
  • Is EU migration a good reason for Brexit?
  • Is EU benefit tourism a good reason for Brexit?
  • Is the housing crisis a good reason for Brexit?
  • Is EU health tourism a good reason for Brexit?
  • Are EU directives and regulations a good reason for Brexit?
  • Is the state of the education system a good reason for Brexit?
  • Is the EU the cause of austerity, low productivity and stagnating wages in the UK?
  • Is the UK paying more than its fair share and getting little out of the EU?
EU benefits
  • Is having the Euro (one currency in 19 countries out of 28) so bad?
  • Is being able to visit, study and work in 28 countries so bad?
  • Is being able to own a second home and retire in 28 countries so bad?
  • Is having common trade arrangements in 28 countries so bad?
  • Is having common environmental standards in 28 countries so bad?
  • Is having common consumer protection in 28 countries so bad?
  • Is reducing the time, stress, cost, etc. across 28 countries so bad?
  • Is the EU undemocratic, out of touch and beyond reform?
Key issues

 

  • Is Britain better or worse off within the EU?
  • Is the EU better or worse off with Britain in the EU?
  • Are you better off with Britain in the EU or not?

Questions and Answers

If I were the average voter, I would want an answer to these questions before casting my vote.

I would also want the answers to be simple, short and to the point but backed-up by evidence.

This is exactly what the AngloDeutsch Blog will seek to do from until the referendum.

This will be a challenge, given my professional and other commitments, but I shall do my best to cover as many of these topics as I can over the next few months, starting with the EU’s freedom of movement of people.

Dr Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU, 13 February 2016


The Return of the Greek Drachma … err Drama!

© Ricardo Pinto, 2015, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

Greece is widely considered to be the cradle of democracy. The theatre of ancient Greece is also considered to be the fountainhead of the Western dramatic tradition, and it shows. The earliest Greek dramas emerged during the 6th Century BC and the term “drama” is derived from the Greek word for action (to do or to act). Indeed, the three main dramatic genres, namely tragedy, comedy and satire (tragicomedy or burlesque), emerged from Athens.

It is just as well that drama is a Greek invention because in the last five months, a mixture of “comedy” and “satyr” is exactly what the Syriza-led government has been serving-up on the European Union (EU) stage. For the final act, it is quite possible that “tragedy” will complete the fascinating yet frightening performance that is unfolding before our eyes. The end product of the Greek drama could well be a return to the Greek drachma.

Greek Drama: paving the way for the drachma?

Dramatic structure refers to the framework of a dramatic work such as a play or a film.  According to Gustav Freytag, dramas can divided into five parts or acts (also called Freytag’s pyramid), as illustrated below.

Freytag's Pyramid and the Greek Drama

I would like to take the liberty of applying Freytag’s pyramid to modern-day Greece, as far as the Eurozone crisis and its future in the EU are concerned. Bear with me.

Act 1. Exposition

This introduces important background information to the audience such as the setting before the main plot in the form of flashbacks, characters’ thoughts, background details, etc.

The first Act of the latest instalment of the Greek drama started during the General Election of January 2015. The Syriza party, indeed almost all Greek parties, told more or less the same narrative and provided the same broad analysis of the background to the plight of Greece and the Greeks. The plot can be summarised as follows: the Greek troubles are the result of the Euro and EU, the Troika (ECB, IMF and EC) has imposed unbearable burdens on the Greek people, resulting in a collapse of GDP, reduction in income and pensions (internal devaluation), very high levels of unemployment, etc. This has all been done in the name of austerity, which has principally served to rescue German and French banks, as well as the Eurozone as a whole but Greece itself. The Greek people have suffered enough. Austerity must end and Greece must regain its self-respect.

Interestingly, the above exposition concentrated almost entirely on the period post-2009, when Greece was rescued from bankruptcy by the EU. The first Act makes clear that the protagonist (Greece) has been treated very badly by the main antagonist in the drama, the Troika / EU / Eurozone / Banks but that enough is enough. The protagonist´s exposition somehow leaves out the decades of corruption, mismanagement, clientelism and sheer incompetence of generation upon generation of Greek leaders that necessitated a rescue by the rest of the Eurozone in 2009 in the first place. But such is the nature of dramatic plots. It is not convenient to set out the background in painful detail, including the fact that Greece had the chance to exit the EU but chose instead to remain and be part of the euro while taking the painful internal devaluation that it implied and which countries in a similar position have also gone through. The previous government signed-up to the bailout conditionality but clearly the mood has changed after five years of painful austerity.

A key aspect of the exposition was the election manifesto. As I have previously discussed, the Syriza programme did prioritise an end to austerity, however, any reading of its pledges would lead to the conclusion that it was both contradictory and unrealistic.

It called for Greece to remain in the EU and Eurozone yet basically roll back the commitments made by the previous government as part of the conditionality for the bailouts, while at the same time calling for an end to privatisation, restoration of lost state jobs, raising of minimum incomes and pensions, free health provision and much else beside. That is all very well during a general election, except for two minor issues: Greece is broke and the only way this can be done is if others pay for it in the short, medium and possibly long-term, yet permanent bailouts are forbidden by various EU treaties for a very good reason.

The EU rescue packages were designed to stop Greece from becoming bankrupt as a result of its own decisions made over a period of decades and did indeed manage to keep them in the Eurozone and the EU, something which the Greek people have always insisted upon. They were designed primarily to buy Greece time to regain competitiveness through reforms agreed to by the previous government. Five years later, this is all interpreted as no more or less than national humiliation, bullying and dictatorship on the part of the EU, with Germany and the Troika singled out for special attention. This was a cracking opening Act in the play.

Act 2. Rising Action

The rising action is a series of events that begin immediately after the exposition (introduction) and builds up to the climax. The entire plot depends on these events to set-up the climax and the satisfactory resolution of the story.

A series of events took place immediately after the election, which set the course for the current Greek drama.

As I have previously discussed, instead of picking a mainstream coalition partner, Syriza chose the Independent Greeks Party which was committed to revoke the agreements between Greece, EU and the Troika, prosecute those who negotiated them, repudiate part of Greece’s debt and require German war reparations for the invasion and occupation of Greece during WWII. Syriza selected this party over other moderate alternative partners. This was widely interpreted and an immediate slap in the face for Germany, by far the most important contributor to past, present and future EU bailouts. Not a good start to negotiations, but great drama.

Syriza then took it as read that being elected actually gave it a mandate to end  austerity in Greece. Under a scenario where Greece would leave the Eurozone and possibly the EU, this would have been correct. Just because they were elected on the basis of a contradictory and unrealistic manifesto, does not give a country the right to implement it unless it assumes responsibility for the costs associated with such a manifesto. Clearly, all the other Eurozone countries would need to pay for a Greek programme that they had absolutely no control over. But if they are to agree a further bail out, they naturally have to approve the basis or conditionality associated with further funds, since they have their own electorates to consider. Instead, Syriza chose to act as if the other countries owed it to Greece to agree their programme by virtue of their electoral mandate.

Furthermore, Syriza and the Independent Greeks Party made a series of important appointments based on political dues to take-on the Troika, rather than selecting experienced and diplomatic negotiators, steeped in the EU way of doing things.

A critical decision was the appointment of the unelected Yanis Varoufakis as the Finance Minister. A bike riding, fiery blogger with a penchant for game theory who describes himself as a “libertarian Marxist” was not necessarily an inspired choice for dealing with 27 other EU Finance Ministers. While he may be a highly regarded economist, he has almost no political experience, except for a period during 2004 – 2006, when he served as an economic adviser to George Papandreou.

Alexis Tsipras, the other main character in the play, can hardly be considered a mature politicians himself, having first been elected to the Greek Parliament in 2009. But initially both Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis were widely fêted by the European media for being a contrast to the previous government – young, handsome, tieless, bike riding (Varoufakis), living in a modest neighbourhood (Tsipras), etc. The media throughout Europe loved this and the message that the Greeks were going to take on the austerity camp in the EU. But it was not only the media and the population of various countries that appreciated the rising action in the Greek drama. Many political parties, such as Podemos and other populist movements, saw the Syriza as a white knight in shining armour riding to slay the austerity dragon and reclaim its democracy from the clutches of the dreaded Troika.

Indeed, many economists and politicians in the EU were actually in tune with the message that after five tortuous years, the emphasis had to change. Instead of unrelenting austerity, collapsing GDP, falling incomes and standards, increasing poverty, deflationary pressures, the emphasis simply had to shift to investment, growth and employment. This had to be combined with flexibility in the bailout programme’s target of a surplus of 4.5% of GDP, so that it could be redeployed to achieve Syriza’s programme objectives.

Therefore, a series of events and individuals came together in the second part of the play that created the basis for the next Act in the political drama.

Act 3. Climax

The climax is the turning point. If the story is a comedy, things will have gone badly for the protagonist up to this point; now, the plot will begin to unfold in his or her favour. If a tragedy, things will go from good to bad or bad to worse for the protagonist, often revealing their weaknesses.

However, although the media, general public, economists and politicians were generally well disposed to the Syriza agenda for easing austerity and focusing on growth, the next  set of events gradually but systematically turned against the Greek government, leading to a crescendo of criticism and recrimination.

The talk of war reparations, right at the beginning of the term of government did not go down too well in Germany. Yet Tsipras and Nikos Paraskevopoulos (Justice Minister) kept banging this particular drum to the tune of € 341 billion in compensation (about the same as the overall Greek debts), knowing full well that this would goad German public opinion at a critical time in Greece’s negotiations. This was naïve to say the least and resulted in a general feeling on the part of the Germans of being blackmailed.  Just to add a bit fuel to the fire, Panos Kammenos (Defence Minister, Independent Greeks) seemed to consider it appropriate to threaten to send Islamist fundamentalists to Germany from among tens of thousands of migrants currently in Greece in revenge for the austerity measures he felt had been imposed on Greece by the Germans. That turned up the heat nicely, not least because other people had been under the impression that the Greeks had chosen to remain in the EU and Euro, sign-up to be bailout and take the bitter medicine of internal devaluation.

The choice of Varoufakis to negotiate the EU bailout was a little unfortunate. Varoufakis may well be a brilliant economist and he may well know more about the ins and outs of the financial crisis than all the other 27 EU Ministers of Finance put together. However, lecturing to them from the off was never going to be a winning strategy. From the beginning there was a fundamental personality and ideology clash between himself and Wolfgang Schäuble, the powerful, experienced and prickly German Minister of Finance, who wasted no time in making it clear to the Greek negotiators that their programme was unrealistic, their promises to their electorate had been misleading and that there would still be conditionality in negotiating EU bailouts.

The basic assumption which characterised the Greek position from day one was that they had the Eurozone countries by the balls and that they simply had to squeeze long and hard enough for their demands would be acceded to. In other words, the basis of negotiations, perhaps informed by game theory,  was that the Eurozone countries feared a Greek default and the contagion that would follow, and that this had the potential to deal a mortal blow to the Euro and the EU project.

But the EU finance ministers did not seem to be cowed by this threat, which I consider to be the worlds´s biggest game of chicken. Greece’s most natural allies in the anti-austerity movement, namely Italy and France, were quickly put off by the strident tones and lack of willingness to compromise. The Spaniards, Portuguese, Irish and Cypriots who were also following the internal devaluation route proved to be even more resistant to backing the Greek cause, no doubt fearful of similar populist movements in their own countries. And the northern group of EU countries, especially Germany, Finland, Slovakia, etc. and others were anxious of the consequences of capitulating to Greece’s insistent demands. As I previously wrote, moral hazard is the main reason why Syriza could not and will not force an EU capitulation. If the Greeks could manage to drive a coach and horses through the bailout terms and conditions, would others be tempted to follow their lead and would this be sustainable for the rest of the Eurozone?

The demand for 50% debt relief was denied, though everyone recognises that the current level of state indebtedness (180% of GDP and rising) is not sustainable and will need to be tackled at some point in the future, during calmer global economic times. There certainly was recognition of the need to allow Greece to use more of its primary budget surplus over the next few years. But Greece’s steely determination to avoid as conditionality to the extent possible in the future Eurozone rescue package, whilst simultaneously dismantling the few reforms implemented so far, such as rolling back privatisation, reemployment of former public employees and raising wages and pensions which it can ill afford, only served to harden opinion against Greece. The consequence after five months of intense negotiations and diplomacy is that remarkably little agreement exists on the overall package of reforms necessary to secure the latest tranche of the EU bailout worth Euro 7.2 billion.

It is tempting to conclude that the single most notable Greek achievement appears to have been the rebranding of the “Troika” into the “Institutions”.  This would be unfair, but everyone has noted the Greek government’s populist tendencies. Progress has been made on the reform programme, but there appear to be insurmountable sticking points, such as the primary surplus targets, VAT reform, privatization targets, minimum wage levels and pension reforms. These are all issues which impinge directly upon the country’s fiscal base and thus its debt sustainability, which is why both sides are sticking grimly to their guns.

Within a few months, the almost complete inability to make progress on these sticking points has raised tensions to critical levels. The resulting lack of confidence and trust means that several high-profile individuals no longer negotiate directly. Varoufakis has been removed from the Greek negotiating team for his abrasiveness and style. Schäuble has been side-lined because of his prickly relationship with Varoufakis and his conclusion that the way forward is a “velvet Grexit”.  Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission and one of the key remaining Greek allies, has expressed his anger and frustration at Tsipras’ misrepresentation of the EU proposals. Many others have vented their frustration with the main protagonists of the Greek drama. The IMF has packed its bags and gone back to Washington saying it was pointless to stay while the two sides remain so far apart. Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice-chancellor recently said that Europe and Germany will not let themselves be blackmailed or let the exaggerated electoral pledges of a partly communist government be paid for by German workers.

These almost unprecedented accusations and counter-accusations serve to harden positions and will make it ever more difficult to achieve compromise in the coming days. Instead of seeking common ground, the Greek Prime Minister reacted by accusing the IMF of “criminal responsibility” for the situation and that its creditors were seeking to “pillage”, “humiliate” and “asphyxiate” his country. For good measure, he added that if Greece fails, it will be the beginning of the end of the Eurozone.

As if that was not enough, others are raising the stakes. Germany’s EU Commissioner, Guenther Oettinger argues that Greece could face a “state of emergency” on 01 July 2015 and Josef Kollar, the vice chairman of Slovakia’s Finance Committee, accused the Greek prime minister of “swindling the whole world” and that “Politics should … be based on economic reality. And in reality, the drachma would be a rescue for Greece.”

The climax was reached in the third Act: there are open rifts and recriminations, the likelihood of Grexit is openly talked about, emergency measures and being discussed and a return to the Greek drachma is widely speculated upon.

Act 4. Falling action

During the falling action phase, the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels, with the protagonist winning or losing against the antagonist. The falling action may contain a moment of final suspense, in which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.

During mid-late June 2015, we enter the 4th and penultimate Act of the Greek drama. Nothing less than the future of Greece in the Eurozone is at stake. Unless Greece honours the € 1.5 billion repayment due to the IMF on 30 June, it is likely to default. Yannis Stournaras, the Governor of the Bank of Greece, has pitched-in to confirm that his country does not have enough funds to pay the IMF and sketch a less than reassuring scenario of the likely consequences of default.

The only solution is to resolve the critical sticking points in the little time that is left. In the past, I would have bet my bottom dollar in the EU’s ability to manage this. Today, following all the posturing and bickering, I am doubtful that the remaining issues can be resolved and a possible EU rescue package can be approved by the Eurozone governments in time for the IMF payment on 30 June 2015.  At the same time, the game theorists among the Fine Young Radicals remain convinced that the EU will shrink from pressing the euro Armageddon button and Greece will win take the prize.

Freytag’s pyramid predicts that the falling action may contain a moment of final suspense, in which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt. There is only one politician with the stature to change the entrenched dynamics, and I certainly do not refer to either Mr Cameron or Mr Hollande, whose lack of leadership and vision is palpable. A last-minute intervention by Mrs Angela Merkel is the only hope for a compromise that satisfies all parties sufficiently to get a deal done but, as usual, she is keeping her cards close to her chest until there is no alternative but to act. But perhaps the situation is already past the point of acting.

At the moment, it is far from clear whether the protagonist or the antagonist will win the day. But in a way, it does not really matter because we have already entered uncharted territory where there will only be losers in this Greek tragedy.

Act 5. Dénouement

The comedy ends with a dénouement in which the protagonist is better off than at the story’s outset. The tragedy ends with a catastrophe, in which the protagonist is worse off than before.

And so we enter the final Act, but it is not clear whether this drama is a comedy, a tragedy or a mixture of the two.

It is still possible for the conflict to be resolved, reducing the tension and stress in Greece and Europe. If this happens, Tsipras, Varoufakis and the rest will be fêted for their high stakes brinkmanship and other countries will undoubtedly try to replicate the methodology deployed by the Greek government. But will this end happily for the Greeks and for Europe? I very much doubt it. There may be a rolling back from the reforms that the Troika/Institutions have been seeking so as to raise Greece´s own competitiveness, but this will only make it harder and take longer for Greece to regain economic traction compared with its neighbours. There may be further debt relief, but even if the level of indebtedness is scaled back to the supposedly sustainable level of 120% of GDP, the Greek economy would still need to perform well consistently for a stretch of time so as to avoid its debts mounting-up rapidly. There may also be implementation of many of the measures that the Syriza has been insisting upon and which are the source of the stalemate, but these will come at the expense of the Eurozone countries for the foreseeable future, many of which are significantly poorer than Greece and resent having to subsidise the Greeks’ minimum wages, pensions, etc. The seeds of doubt about the merits of continuing Eurozone membership have already been sown and will start germinating. If other countries such as Spain and Portugal follow the Greek model (moral hazard), several of the net EU contributors, not least Germany, may conclude that the limits of the EU and Eurozone have not only been reached but surpassed. As for the Greeks themselves, they may be in greater control of their own destiny but the reforms that have been so elusive in the past will still need to be implemented, which is not a given. Whatever happens, the Greek citizens will realise that austerity will not, in fact, have been stopped. Furthermore, unless the economy starts performing much more strongly, the latest tranche of the EU bailout will not last long. But after the extreme stress and friction of negotiating this agreement, there may not be much enthusiasm for another full bailout. The game theorists must realise that this is a consequence of their winner-takes-all and at-all-costs strategy. Grexit will remain a possibility. Or perhaps the Syriza government will begin to collect tax revenues vigorously, introduce effective reforms exceeding all expectations and pull the country back from the brink. The past is not necessarily a predictor of the future, but I doubt this will happen without strong and timely global growth to lift all boats, including the Greek one.

But it is possible, indeed likely, based on the latest statements emanating from all sides, that this Greek tragedy will end in catastrophe – yet another word of Greece origin. If Greece does not make the IMF repayment due on 01 July 2015, it is quite possible that a political rabbit will be pulled out of the bag and default will be averted. Angela Merkel is apparently fond of the saying: where there is a will, there is a way. But based on the current situation, sooner rather than later, the country will run out of money. At that point, all hell will break loose, despite all the warm and comforting reassurances from politicians that firewalls are in place to avoid contagion that would wreak havoc across Europe and possibly other parts of the world.

As I wrote in a separate blog post: Eastern Europe went through variants of shock therapy in the 1990s and the Russians, Poles and all the others will confirm that very little was predicted by economic theory, that recovery took much longer than anticipated and that they have absolutely no desire to ever experience such wanton destruction again. I would not wish this upon Greece or any other nation. I would much rather another round of muddling through in the classical European way instead of the destructive, unpredictable catharsis that is being floated. But I also know that many would disagree and not just in Greece.”

Having reflected on the last five months since the election of the Greek government, I am tending to the conclusion that the Greek drama may well end in a dénouement / catastrophe / catharsis resulting from the Fine Young Radicals’ refusal to compromise. They will take the hit, re-establish the drachma or something similar and do their best to move forward. Greece will then be fully in charge of its monetary policy, its currency, its dignity and everything else that its people, in an act of mass amnesia, believe Germany and the other Eurozone countries have taken away from them in the last five years. Of course, they cannot then expect further EU bailouts, will have to live within their own financial means and will rely on their own politicians to navigate the process of regaining international competitiveness.

Hold on! For a second I almost forgot that this is precisely the scenario that the Greek citizens have been bending over backwards and executing double somersaults to avoid. For otherwise they would surely have voted to exit the Euro/Eurozone/EU in one of their previous two general elections, rather than willingly go through the latest acts of this excruciating Greek drama.

Perhaps it really is true that we cannot have it both ways… even in the EU.