The Root of Greece’s Problem (and Ours)


Will it be the Euro or Drachma for Greece?  It’s down to the wire as Greece and the European Union negotiate the necessary conditions for Greece to remain in the Eurozone.  I have devoted several recent posts to the Greek fiscal crisis, pointing out the parallels between the Greek situation and our own.
Greece needs a bailout because its public debt is nearly 180% of GDP.  Our own public debt is “only” 74% of GDP at the present time but is predicted by the CBO to reach 175% of GDP by 2040, just 25 years from now.  Furthermore, Greece is currently receiving very favorable lending conditions from the European Central Bank, much better than are likely to apply in the U.S. in the long term.  This means we’re likely to have another deep crisis on our hands much sooner than 25 years from now.
CaptureConsider the data in the above charts from today’s Wall Street Journal.  It shows that Greece is spending 14.4% of GDP on pensions, more than any other major European country.  Furthermore, the efficiency of its VAT revenue collection is the poorest in the EU.  In other words, Greece has a very high rate of entitlement spending and has a poor tax collection system to support it.
Capture1In a general sense the U.S. is in a similar situation.  Today we spend about 13% of GDP on mandatory, i.e. entitlement, programs, compared to a total tax revenue level of 18% of GDP.  Just entitlement spending alone is projected to rise to 18% of GDP by 2050, unless changes are made.
Just as Greece needs to tighten up on pension spending, improve revenue collection and get its economy growing faster, the U.S. needs to tighten up on entitlement spending and speed up its stagnant economic growth as well.
We’re not yet as bad off as Greece is today.  But we’re headed in that direction with no one to bail us out when we get there!

The High Cost of Less Austerity


All eyes are focused on the drama playing out in Greece.  The Greeks have just voted not to accept Europe’s latest offer to keep the credit flowing, amounting to a 5% of Greek GDP income transfer from their European neighbors, in return for additional economic reforms to put the country on a path to self-sufficiency.
Capture1The New York Times declares, “For Europe’s Sake, Keep Greece in the Eurozone,”  that the European Union should “offer some path forward for the Greek economy, starting by writing down its huge and unpayable debts.”  More than likely EU leaders will work out a new agreement with Greece to enable it to remain in the EU and the Eurozone.  Greece is lucky to be in such a position.
In a recent post, “Could the U.S. End up Like Greece? II. How Long Will It Take?”, I pointed out that the U.S. is likely to have a public debt of 175% of GDP by 2040, the same level as the Greek debt today.  Furthermore interest rates are likely to be higher than their unusually low level today which means that we will be making proportionally higher interest payments at that time.  In other words, we are likely relatively soon, within 25 years, to have a painfully high level of debt.
Who is going to bail us out when our own debt becomes “unpayable”?  Obviously, no one!  Right now the austerity and pain caused by the Greek debt is confined to the 11 million people in Greece.
Which is better?  For us to bite the bullet now and get our fiscal house in order by, for example, moving towards annual balanced budgets Or to wait until our debt becomes unbearable and there is no one to bail us out?
We are so big that if this ever happens and drastic measures have to be taken, much of the world will be drawn into the suffering along with us.  It won’t be a pretty sight!

Could the U.S. End Up Like Greece? II. How Long Will It Take?


My last blog post, “Could the U.S. End Up Like Greece?” compares Greece’s present fiscal situation (public debt at 180% of GDP) with our own current fiscal situation (public debt at 74% of GDP and rising fast).  The Congressional Budget Office predicts that, under current policy, the U.S. debt will not reach 180% until about 2055, forty years from now.  One could (wrongly!) conclude from this that we are okay for the time being.
CaptureHowever, this is not true!  The Peter G. Peterson Foundation has taken a closer look at the most recent CBO report.  Under a less optimistic, but more realistic, Alternative Fiscal Scenario, the U.S. debt will reach 175% in 2040.  The Alternative Fiscal Scenario assumes, for example, that:

  • About 50 expiring tax breaks will continue to be extended year by year, as they were in 2014 and have been repeatedly in the past. These “tax extenders” increase the deficit by over $40 billion per year.
  • Discretionary spending will soon rise back up to its historical share of GDP. In other words, the sequester, which is currently holding down the growth of discretionary spending, may be overridden or at least relaxed.

Greece, with its debt at 180% of GDP, is only being required by the European Central Bank to pay 1.7% interest on this debt indefinitely into the future.  Thanks to the low interest rate policy of the Federal Reserve, 1.7% is also the current rate of interest being paid on the U.S. debt.  But this historically low interest rate is unlikely to continue much longer without setting off a much higher rate of inflation.
In other words, we’ll likely be in the same situation as Greece is currently, in much less than 25 years.  Furthermore, Germany and the other EU countries have been keeping Greece afloat for years and may continue to do so.
Who is going to bail us out when we get to where Greece is now?  China?  Unlikely.  We’ll be on our own and it won’t be pretty!