Monday, May 25, 2015

A Greek Exit May Be the Lesser of Two Evils

One of my favorite financial commentators, Professor John Cochrane of Chicago Booth pooh-poohs talk about a Greek exit from the euro, saying essentially that we are used to sovereign defaults and this issue is separate and distinct from a decision by Greece to exit the euro.  He writes,
"Greece no more needs to leave the euro zone than it needs to leave the meter zone and recalibrate all its rulers, or than it needs to leave the UTC+2 zone and reset all its clocks to Athens time. When large companies default, they do not need to leave the dollar zone. When cities and even US states default they do not need to leave the dollar zone. A common currency means that sovereigns default just like large financial companies."
But, unlike the U.S. dollar which gained wide acceptance after the detailed architecture of the United States of America had been put in place and operating, the euro was created as a common currency without a political union in place, so I would argue that John's comment misses an essential political difference. Finance, more often than not, turns on politics, which is logical since markets are themselves social constructs in which the rulers of the nation-state have an intense interest.

Going back to 2011, we wrote, "...a paralyzed Europe has to come to terms with the failure of the notion of their common currency union."  

In 2012, we wrote, "Meanwhile, the economic and social  costs of the adjustment to the weaker EU members will be genuinely painful."

I can't believe that it's taken four years for the financial press to wake up to the realities as opposed to covering EU press conferences. The Greek government played chicken with Germany, and Greece blinked. Cash was found, debt repayments were made, but they were made with prior loaned amounts found laying around, lent by the IMF/ECB. This was a cruel joke, and the charade continues, but at what cost?

Greece is a sovereign state, and it should have the freedom to make its own foolish economic decisions and to run itself into the ground, if there is no domestic political will.  Instead, its economy is chronically mismanaged, but more so than Italy or France?  And, though its electorate expressed revulsion at the euro scenario by bringing in a reform party, the people's will continues not to be carried out because of the eurozone's fiscal and economic reform requirements.  Sooner or later, this lack of political freedom is a genuine cost of belonging to the euro zone.  

The contagion issue is a technical red herring, in my opinion.  Policy pundits have argued about this before, to no real conclusion or benefit.  Greece needs to confront its own economic and social mismanagement and deal with monetary issues through its own elected representative government.  If Greece were to reissue the drachma, try to prohibit capital flight, and the drachma rose to 500 drachma/euro, then a rather painful adjustment process would begin and a new equilibrium found. But this process might be less destructive to the Greek polity than the slow bloodletting under the ECB/IMF/ESM, Whatever path chosen, it would be chosen by the Greek voters, without outside pressures, other than by market price signals. 

Greece would also being doing a favor for the rest of Europe by exposing the economic fraud which is the EU, that shouldn't have allowed most of the periphery to join the eurozone had it enforced its own rules.  

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