The Greek Depression
Think Greece's failing economy has been saved from the abyss? Think again.
When European finance ministers approved another $64 billion in aid to Greece in December, Europhiles breathed a collective sigh of relief. Economic catastrophe had been averted and the so-called "Grexit" now seemed unlikely. The $64 billion, like previous installments, would soften Greece’s fiscal adjustment program — the severest in history — and the country would gradually recover. Inside Greece, however, economic salvation has felt far less reassuring. The government coalition has aired a predictable sense of optimism, but overburdened and overtaxed citizens do not share its enthusiasm for the country’s grim economic outlook. Bailout or not, economic despair is now descending over Greece.
Fiscally, Greece’s adjustment has been successful. The government deficit has been cut from 15.6 percent of GDP in 2009 to an estimated 7 percent in 2012. This year, the government could theoretically record an annual primary surplus. At the same time, Greece’s Athens Stock Exchange General Index recorded the strongest performance in the Western European market in 2012, surging 33 percent, and Greek borrowing spreads have begun to narrow.
But the cost of economic reform has been staggering. 2013 will mark the sixth year of Greece’s "Great Depression," during which the country has lost more than a quarter of its GDP. Although the United States’ depression saw GDP decline 27 percent, it lasted for only four years (1929 to 1933) and the country returned to its pre-Depression GDP level only eight years later, surpassing it the year after. This kind of recovery will almost certainly not happen in Greece before 2020.
Moreover, Greece’s depression dynamic is far worse than what the piecemeal policies prescribed by the "troika" — the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and the European Central Bank — could possibly remedy. Personal income has been in free-fall since 2010, and it’s unlikely that wages will rebound for many years. At the same time, the country’s output has regressed to levels last seen in the 1990s — before nearly two decades of European integration that pulled GDP per capita in Greece to within striking distance of the EU average. And as the country’s debt sustainability is being put to the test, so is society’s ability to withstand hardship.
At the same time as the Greek welfare state is being gutted, the expectations, income, and quality of life for an entire generation are being adjusted downward. The same generation that became accustomed to cheap credit following Greece’s accession to the eurozone in 2002 is now trying to learn to live on far less. Wages in the private sector have declined more than 30 percent since 2010, and wage floors (minimum monthly wages) have fallen 22 percent — and 32 percent for those younger than 25. Meanwhile, lack of competition, oligopolistic behavior, and rising taxes have kept prices elevated.
Unemployment is set to surpass 26 percent by 2014, according to the conservative Bank of Greece, or 31 percent according the German-based Kiel Institute for the World Economy. These forecasts exceed the 24 percent reached during the depths of America’s Great Depression. Over 60 percent of unemployed Greeks have been without work for more than a year, an alarming trend given the difficulty of addressing long-term unemployment. Youth unemployment, meanwhile, which clocks in at 55 percent, has already surpassed rates in most countries with similar labor force participation rates. And the light at the end of the tunnel is a long way off. Analysis of previous crises by the International Labor Organization showed that the average recovery time for youth employment during crises in countries where the pre-crisis employment level was eventually attained is 11 years, while in many countries employment only achieved a new trough.
The bulk of Greece’s 1.2 million unemployed workers hail from the private sector. Until now, public-sector workers have been protected; a mere 100,000 have exited the labor force, almost all due to retirement. The public sector is the political elite’s last bastion of patronage, one that is very gradually ebbing as the troika keeps a watchful eye on hiring. To date, however, no mainstream politician has been willing to commit to outright dismissals of public-sector workers. Precise figures about the size of the Greek public sector are not very reliable, but it’s believed that around 800,000 Greeks are working for the public sector.
Job creation is a daunting task that will test Greece’s politicians going forward. From 1970 to 2009 the private sector added 800,000 new jobs on top of the 3 million already in existence. The majority of the new jobs were in construction, commerce (wholesale and retail), and tourism. But as consumer demand ebbs in the current economic climate, retail business is more likely to shrink than grow. Tourism, meanwhile, has the potential to create jobs, but Greece has to do much more to reach its true potential. Greece has to become more business-friendly and service-oriented, improve its infrastructure, thin its communist-type bureaucracy, and simplify its tax code, making it fair. Current estimates put the annual cost of red tape in the Greek bureaucracy at 6.8 percent of GDP. It appears nearly impossible for 1.2 million new jobs to be created by 2025. Sectors beyond construction and commerce will need to provide the bulk of new employment; Greece will need to unleash the potential of its service sector, with tourism leading the way.
With joblessness on the rise and the middle class squeezed from all directions, the "new poor" of Greece are fast rising. The percentage of Greek households at risk of falling into poverty increased to 21.4 percent in 2011 from 20.1 percent in 2010 — the fourth worst in Europe behind Bulgaria, Romania, and Spain. Because the recession has only deepened since then, it’s inevitable that the number of poor Greeks will rise accordingly. Meanwhile, the Greek statistical agency ELSTAT found that more than 50 percent of Greeks had difficulty paying their bills in 2011, while 63 percent made ends meet "with difficulty" or "with great difficulty." Since the beginning of the crisis, Greece’s suicide rate has nearly doubled, from three to nearly five suicides per 100,000 citizens.
At the same time, the state is facing a revenue crisis, in part because of rampant tax evasion. In 2012, the European Commission estimated the size of Greece’s shadow economy to be 24 percent of GDP, resulting in an annual $13 billion loss in revenue. The Washington-based think tank Global Financial Integrity estimates that Greece lost $158 billion to illicit activities such as bribery and tax evasion during the decade ending in 2009. In 2010, the last year for which data are available, only 83 Greeks reported an annual income of more than $1.1 million — out of a population of nearly 7 million taxpayers.
Tax evasion can only be fought if improved collection measures are put in place and tax collectors are paid high enough salaries that they aren’t susceptible to bribery or political meddling. According to the European Commission’s Task Force for Greece, only around one-third of comprehensive tax audits of high-net-worth individuals have been conducted, due to lack of administrative capacity and inertia. In 2012, Greece was the lowest-ranked EU country on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Ranked 94th out of 174, it lags a full 19 places behind Bulgaria, the next EU member state.
Lax, unfair rules contribute to Greece’s tax evasion problem. What truly makes the country corrupt, however, is its lack of institutional capacity, deficit of political accountability, and political system that protects its own brethren. Greece has never convicted a senior elected politician of corruption, and according to a 2011 report of the General Inspector of Public Administration, only about 2 percent of misbehaving civil servants are subject to disciplinary procedures. The cronyism that defines the unholy trinity of business, media, and politics has not been broken, despite increased foreign media reporting and a spate of public scandals that reached the upper echelons of government.
Brain drain and demographics will also affect Greece’s long-term economic prospects. The flight of skilled labor has long been a problem, but it is increasing as the crisis deepens. According to the latest statistics, of the 30,000 or so Greeks who studied abroad in 2010, some 85 percent did not plan to return. Likewise, Greece’s demographics are disturbing, with only 14.4 percent of the population younger than 14 (ranking Greece 218th among 226 countries). At the same time, immigrants are rapidly returning to their countries of origin, meaning that fewer taxpayers — with lower incomes — will be forced to support an economy that already doesn’t generate enough wealth to support itself.
Greece’s statist system is only now being forced to change. As the country works with the troika to restructure its economy, improving the investment climate is critically important. But privatizations aimed at bringing foreign investors back can’t be carried out unless more fundamental reforms are put in place; the danger of selling state assets to private oligarchs is glaringly visible. Moreover, banks can only begin to lend when confidence returns and the vicious cycle of depression and nonperforming loans, currently more than a quarter of outstanding loans, begin to abate.
Greece’s recovery depends on the return of business confidence and investment. Both should be given a boost by the economic adjustment program as well as a number of major projects financed by EU funds. Without external investment injections, however, the economy will likely see few productivity gains. Investment in human capital, research and development, and infrastructure enhancement can’t be realized by Greece’s capital resources alone.
At the same time, Greece will need to leverage its tourism, services, agriculture, and shipping potential in order to get out of its current hole. Much noise has been made recently about the country’s potential offshore natural gas reserves, which could be worth as much as $600 billion — or more than Greece’s public debt. But even if these resources are confirmed, future hydrocarbon windfalls would be more of a curse than a blessing without profound economic and institutional reforms.
The Greek experiment is far from over, and, indeed, the country’s fraught political environment might well throw a wrench in the current recovery effort. Ultimately, however, Greece’s economic future turns on striking a delicate balance between social unity, political wherewithal, and mindful external support. Despite government statements to the contrary, things will likely get worse before they get better. Pessimism coupled with pervasive bewilderment of a seemingly corrupt and inept political system will increase. The economic recovery will be long and protracted, and Greeks will feel increasingly squeezed as the adjustment measures take full effect. The eurozone might have lived to fight another day, but the outlook in Greece is hardly optimistic.