As Reforms Flag in Greece, Europe Aims to Limit Damage
By RACHEL DONADIO and NIKI KITSANTONIS
Published: January 15, 2012
ATHENS — As Greece and its lenders prepare for another week of tense negotiations, European officials now say that the task is less to help the country through its troubles than to avoid the sort of uncontrolled default that many experts fear could threaten the global financial system.
Officials from the so-called troika of foreign lenders to Greece — the European Central Bank, European Union and International Monetary Fund — have come to believe that the country has neither the ability nor the will to carry out the broad economic reforms it has promised in exchange ...view middle of the document...
As recently as November, Greece and its lenders were optimistic that the country’s newly installed prime minister, Lucas Papademos, a well-respected financial technocrat, would stabilize Greece’s soaring debt and help nurse the country back to health.
But since then, his interim government — stocked not with technocrats but with politicians gunning for national elections as soon as March — has been paralyzed. Although it passed the 2012 national budget, it has failed to put into effect most of the unpopular changes mandated by the loan agreement that the previous government made back in 2010, when the country first admitted it was broke.
“The prime minister is a fine personality — he’s educated, he’s honest, he’s the best you can get around. But no one is helping him,” said George Kirtsos, the owner of a weekly newspaper, The Athens City Press. “Those that take the decisions at a national level believe that Greece will not make it.”
There is considerable posturing in these sorts of negotiations, and the troika has threatened to withdraw aid in the past, only to approve the next loan installment. It may do so again despite its misgivings, because the alternative of an uncontrolled default is too risky. But it will do so only if negotiations with private bondholders can be completed successfully.
But, amid a stream of gloomy news from Europe, including the downgrade of the debt of France and eight other countries, the sense that default is inevitable is growing. “When you simply go over the bare figures I can’t really imagine another scenario,” said Michael Fuchs, a leading member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in the German Parliament.
“Mathematics is mathematics, and one plus one has to equal two and not five,” he said, describing how, even with a significant restructuring of its debt, the Greek government’s deficit would still be too large and its economy not competitive enough to put the country back on a sound footing.
That sense can be self-reinforcing as well, making it even harder for Mr. Papademos to push through the changes Greece needs to survive the current crisis.
Greece’s dire economic condition can hardly be overstated. After two years of tax increases and wage cuts, Greek civil servants have seen their income shrink by 40 percent since 2010, and private-sector workers have suffered as well. More than $75 billion has left the country as people move their savings abroad. Some 68,000 businesses closed in 2010, and another 53,000 — out of 300,000 still active — are said to be close to bankruptcy, according to a report issued in the fall by the Greek Co-Federation of Chambers of Commerce.
“It’s an implosion — it’s an endless sequence of implosions from bad to worse, to worse, to worse,” said Yanis Varoufakis, an economics professor at the University of Athens and commentator on the Greek economy. “There’s nothing to stop the Greek economy losing 60 percent of its G.D.P., given the path it is at.”