Elections in Greece are scheduled for January 25th 2015. This article outlines a baseline scenario for the consequences of a SYRIZA election and its political and economic aftermath. Assuming SYRIZA abides by its electoral promises and no Troika compromise occurs, we forecast a hard default by May 2015.
SYRIZA Electoral Promises
SYRIZA’s core electoral promises were proclaimed at Alexi Tsipras’ speech at the Thessaloniki International Trade Fair. An English language summary can be found on SYRIZA’s website here.
Several electoral promises are the main drivers of the economic scenario. We distribute these between multilateral promises (those dependent on foreign creditors) and unilateral promises (those theoretically capable of implementation based on a national parliamentary majority).
- An immediate write-down of 50% of Greece’s existing debt, excepting (theoretically) the IMF portion
- A moratorium on repayment of the remaining debt, and linking debt repayments to GDP growth
- Reclaiming the Nazi occupation forced loan from Germany
- Eliminating the ENFIA property tax and replacing it with a tax on large property holdings
- Raising the minimum wage to € 751 per month
- Restoring public sector wages and employment
- Social programme and revisions to the tax code with total expenditure or revenue impact over € 10 billion
SYRIZA prices the cost of its programme at € 11.4 bln and anticipates revenue of € 12 bln. This estimate is faulty, because its public spending increases and revenue cuts are front-loaded, while a large share of revenue increases are back-loaded. This is seen in three main areas:
- Tax arrears collection: we do not believe SYRIZA will be able to collect € 3 billion in tax arrears in 2015. In fact, cancelling the ENFIA tax and lack of clarity over the remaining tax code changes will increase tax arrears and reduce revenue.
- Combatting tax evasion and smuggling: while these are very worthy goals, it is doubtful whether they can lead to the [unstated] revenue target within 2015.
- The “comfort pillow” of € 11 billion from the Hellenic Financial Stabilisation Fund cannot be seized by SYRIZA. HFSF is a private organisation; the “comfort pillow” concerns EFSF bonds that cannot be monetised in the absence of prior EFSF agreement. (See our previous analysis of HFSF here).
SYRIZA Implementation Assessment
Our core scenario see the following likely results of a SYRIZA attempt to implement its electoral promises.
- Given the lack of financial reserves, SYRIZA will have to achieve a negotiated solution within approximately 1 month of election, i.e. by March 1st 2015. As already reviewed, Greece does not have the financial reserves to pay for debt redemptions past February 2015. SYRIZA’s estimates that it can negotiate for 6 months are fantasy.
- The Eurozone / Troika partners will not accept either a unilateral write-down of 50% of debt. This has been explicitly stated by nearly all decision-makers within the Troika (Germany, Finland, Netherlands, etc).
- Debt reprofiling based on GDP-linked bonds is also a fantasy. The key issue is not the debt:GDP ratio, but Greece’s ability to service its debt. A rising GDP does not result in higher tax revenue or a balanced budget, and has not done so in Greece for years due to tax evasion, corruption, nepotism, protection of different interest groups, high public sector spending, etc. This is clearly illustrated by the fact that Greece has run high deficits even during the boom years, and in fact these deficits were a main cause of the current debt crisis.
- Germany will neither accept responsibility for the Nazi Occupation-era loan, nor repay it.
As a result, all of SYRIZA’s unilateral promises will result in failure. The negotiations to this point will take between 1-3 months. At this point (or earlier), SYRIZA will either have to perform a 180-degree U-turn on policy, but at this time it will be too late at least for 2015 debt redemption. This is explained further below.
In terms of unilateral promises, a presumed SYRIZA or SYRIZA-coalition government in Parliament will be able to push through different laws, which will front-load the revenue collapse in Greece. Specifically, we forecast minimum revenue losses of a € 6 billion within 6 months of initial SYRIZA law-making, and total revenue losses of at least € 10-12 billion in 2015.
The Issue of Timing
The comments made in the last two paragraphs should illustrate the danger Greece will find itself in by March-April 2015.
- The failed negotiations with the Troika will take at least 2 months (to end-March). In this time, Greece has to make debt payments in excess of € 5.1 billion, which it does not have, unless it delays other schedule public sector payments (payroll, pensions).
- SYRIZA will not have the € 7.6 bln final installment of the second bail-out package, nor the € 11 bln HFSF “comfort pillow” it is relying on to service its debt and ongoing government expenditure during the negotiation period, which it has stated will last for 6 months.
- SYRIZA’s first laws and wider policies will have the effect of tearing a € 6 bln hole in 2015 central government revenue, or over 10% of the annual total, by May 2015. This will be manifest in slowing tax payments; growing tax arrears; etc.
- The bank run will continue. Current deposit outflows in January 2015 are possibly as high as € 7-8 billion. Yesterday’s daily outflow alone was estimated at € 1 billion. The four systemic Greek banks have all requested additional Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) from the Greek Central Bank.
- No other creditor will step up to bail out Greece. Press reports that China or Russia will finance Greece are a ludicrous fantasy. Besides having their own fiscal problems, Chinese and Russian policy-makers are not stupid. They will not fund a country that has just refused to honour prior sovereign debt commitments to its Eurozone partners.
The Crisis – European Policy Response
Unless SYRIZA does a 180-degree U-turn by February 28th, calls back the Troika inspectors, and applies for a third Memorandum with supplemental funding, Greece will face a hard default of debt redemptions between March and May 2015.
At this point, we anticipate the following European policy response:
- The European Central Bank will stop accepting Greek government bonds as collateral from Greek private banks for ECB loans.
- The € 15 billion ELA cap by the Greek Central Bank will be maintained: no new ELA will be approved.
- No Greek government bonds will be purchased under the ECB’s QEIII.
- The final installments of the second bail-out will not be disbursed.
- The Troika monitoring team will not return to Athens.
Taken as a whole, these steps will require the Greek government to finance its operations and SYRIZA’s political platform solely using its own financial resources. There will be a dramatic spill-over effect into the private sector, creating a major fall in economic activity, and major cancellations by foreign tour operators for incoming tourism.
Assuming the deadlock drags on, then we can expect the following additional measures:
- No new European Union structural or cohesion funds will be released to Greece. Greek national involvement will be frozen pending a resolution of the dispute.
- Taking a page from the EU’s response to the Austrian Freedom Party’s inclusion in the Austrian government in 2000, there will be a formal or informal freeze on relations with Greece. This may be expressed within certain EU institutions, or on a bilateral level by certain Eurozone Member States.
It will be interesting to see if Finland exercises its collateral call option on its share of Greek debt.
The Crisis – The SYRIZA Response
The magnitude of such a default and its impact in Greece will be significant. Besides the impact on private sector operations and tourism, it should be clear that labour migration will rise, tax revenue collection will fall, and corporate closures and relocations will increase. This will create an additional revenue hit of € 6-10 bln by September 2015. The Greek banking sector will be technically and practically insolvent. SYRIZA will have to implement one or more of the following responses by May-June 2015:
- A daily and monthly limit on cash withdrawals from Greek banks will be effected.
- A ban will be in effect for most electronic bank transfers abroad: transfers over a certain limit will be banned; others will be subject to Ministry of Finance or Greek Central Bank approval.
- By April or May, the government will no longer be able to honour its cash commitments within Greece. It will stop paying private sector contractors: delays will eventually reach a minimum of 6 months; quite possibly 18 months.
- By June or July, the government will have to begin paying public sector salaries and pensions partially in promissory notes or government bonds.
- Should the crisis continue, SYRIZA may have to take steps to bail-in bank depositors, probably those with over € 175,000. This will be cast as a populist measure, and there may be an exchange of cash deposits for government bonds.
Leaving the Eurozone
We do not believe that Greece will leave the Eurozone. The scenario described above is for a hard default within the Eurozone. Not only is Eurozone membership irrevocable: there exists no practical, legal mechanism to eject a country once it has been admitted.
Moreover, there are three important points to consider:
- Leaving the Eurozone does not eliminate Greek debt. Greece cannot unilaterally convert its Euro debt into “New Drachma Debt”: this is a decision that would have to involve its creditors. Even if a “New Drachma” were to be implemented, the debt would remain linked to the Euro-New Drachma Exchange rate. So for all intents and purposes, devaluation will not work, unless it is a form of devaluation that results in hyperinflation in Greece. There is a very real misperception in the Greek press that Eurozone exit = immediate debt write-off. It does not.
- Greece will probably continue to operate in the Eurozone by issuing a parallel currency in the form of government bonds or promissory notes. The only real limitation to Eurozone membership in practical terms is governed by the European Central Bank, and its requirements for private banking operations as well as actual cash and central bank reserves in the country. All of these can be bypassed by promissory notes, which of course would immediate lose most of their value, but might be tradable.
- Greece remains part of several free trade agreements, notably the European Union and the World Trade Organisation. It is part of a widely inter-connected global economy. Its borders are porous. This means that black market currency operations, smuggling and other phenomena will only grow as the domestic economic climate worsens. Try as it might, SYRIZA cannot shut down Greece’s borders, screen every cargo truck in transit, or every tourist, who might be bringing in currency or black market goods.
Macro and Fiscal Impacts
Should the hard default scenario occur as we describe it, the likely impacts will be:
- A GDP decline of at least 10%
- Central government revenue falls from € 51 bln in 2014 to € 40 bln in 2015
- Incoming tourism falls by 20-25% visitor arrivals and revenue
- Greek exports and imports fall by a significant magnitude as credit instruments are no longer available
- Poverty levels will increase
- Household and corporate debt will increase; non-performing loans will increase
- Unemployment increases
- The banking system becomes insolvent.
Will SYRIZA Adapt?
In recent weeks, SYRIZA’s leader Alexis Tsipras has been making superficially moderate statements. He recently suggested that Greece would not secede from NATO, and that any decisions on debt would be a decision made together with European partners. In a recent opinion piece in the Financial Times, he stated that
A Syriza government will respect Greece’s obligation, as a eurozone member, to maintain a balanced budget, and will commit to quantitative targets.
He did not, however, explain how SYRIZA would honour or service its existing debt.
These moderating statements frequently clash with those of SYRIZA members. Yiannis Varoufakis, for instance, yesterday stated in an interview that SYRIZA would make Wolfgang Scheuble “an offer he can’t refuse”, and that the alternative to debt write-off was “death”.
SYRIZA’s political messages for its domestic audience have continued their triumphalist, maximalist tone. These messages will play a direct role in getting the party, which is actually a coalition of 13 groups and independent politicians. Whether Alexis Tsipras can continue to moderate a party that is so apparently drunk on its own success, and so seemingly ignorant of the real world outside the ivory tower, remains to be seen.
Unless the normal reality of Greek public and private sector operations are suspended, it will not be possible for SYRIZA to implement its Thessaloniki programme and the other maximalist policy goals its leaders are promising to Greek voters. European leaders have indicated that no further debt write-offs are possible. Threfore, it is highly likely that unless SYRIZA drops its pledge to write-down 50% of the debt and urgently finds ways to service the existing debt in conjunction with the Troika, Greece is bound for a hard default within the Eurozone in the next 6 months.
(c) Philip Ammerman, 2015
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This article was originally posted on Navigator Consulting Group.
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