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Greece and Goldman Sachs

Investigative reports by the New York Times and Der Spiegel have left Goldman Sachs and Greece squirming in the limelight. For at least fifteen years, the American investment bank has been helping Greece legally massage its public finances. The arrangement enabled Greece to keep its European partners happy without having to make tough fiscal decisions. Specifically, the bank created currency swaps that enabled debt issued in dollars or yen to be swapped for euro-denominated bonds that would be paid back at a later date. Sound fishy? Those on both sides of the Atlantic think so. From the New York Times:

Wall Street tactics akin to the ones that fostered subprime mortgages in America have worsened the financial crisis shaking Greece and undermining the euro by enabling European governments to hide their mounting debts.... Wall Street did not create Europe’s debt problem. But bankers enabled Greece and others to borrow beyond their means, in deals that were perfectly legal. Few rules govern how nations can borrow the money they need for expenses like the military and health care. The market for sovereign debt — the Wall Street term for loans to governments — is as unfettered as it is vast.

Der Spiegel has been following the issue for a longer period of time, and the frustration in Germany over Greece's behavior is particularly acute. The magazine notes that the accounting procedures have only delayed the day of reckoning:

At some point Greece will have to pay up for its swap transactions, and that will impact its deficit. The bond maturities range between 10 and 15 years. Goldman Sachs charged a hefty commission for the deal and sold the swaps on to a Greek bank in 2005.

The activities of Goldman Sachs in Greece are neither surprising nor novel. Indeed, Der Spiegel notes that Italy has engaged in similar activities with another bank for some time. The controversy highlights how difficult fiscal reform is in modern democracies. Today was Greece's day of reckoning, tomorrow could be America's. Anne Applebaum at Slate writes, "I have seen America's future and it is Greece."

The revelations come at a very inopportune time for Greece, the bank, and the EU. What do these revelations say about the proposed bailout of the country by the EU? Can the Euro survive when its member states can easily fabricate their numbers? (Imagine California making secret purchases in eurobond markets that are swapped out at a later date for dollar-denominated bonds.) Is the Euro feasible without greater political cohesion among the EU's member states? And what does this transaction say about the value-added of investment banks? As Baseline Scenario notes, are investment banks in sovereign markets really producing "productivity-enhancing financial innovation" or just "a sophisticated form of scam?"

Of BRICs and PIGS

There is a significant amount of hand-wringing going on in the US that the Euro is fraying on the edges. Some pundits have even coined a rather derogatory acronym for Euro-countries in economic distress: the PIGS (Portugal, Italy or Ireland, Greece, Spain). The acronym bunches together four countries with very different backgrounds but one shared fact: they all face serious budget shortfalls.

The grouping of these countries, largely by investment banks, may simplify investment and policymaking decisions to an unfortunate level. Italy for one does not want to be part of the group, and the Italian bank UniCredit has waged an effective campaign to change the "I" in PIGS to Ireland. But Ireland too has begun to restore both consumer confidence and budget stability thanks to aggressive action by the central government. Commentators seem to keep the "I" because that is the crucial vowel that holds the acronym together.

Portugal, Spain, and Greece are also all facing very different challenges. Portugal has a sizable but manageable budget deficit, while Spain is struggling with a burst housing bubble a la Florida. Greece remains the real country of concern; but then again, Greece has roughly the same debt levels as Germany, so what is all the fuss about?

The classification overlooks the more important--and legally binding---organizations already in existence, namely the EU and the Eurozone. Talk of the dissolution of the Euro is premature but rampant: the New York Times has published no less than three articles on the subject in the last two days alone (here, here, and here). At the end of the day, policymakers in Europe and the US have to honestly ask themselves: is leaving the Euro really an option? The case of Iceland clearly demonstrates what happens to small countries with large debt obligations in tumultuous times and it is not pretty.

The discussion of categorization reminds me of the BRIC acronym held in high regard by investors prior to 2008. Brazil, Russia, India, and China were touted as the hallmarks of the developing world at the time, and investments in all four countries were seen to be equally appeasing. Two years, a war in Georgia, and a global economic crisis later, the BRICs no longer look so homogeneous. I suspect the same will soon be true for the PIGS. 

How should we classify countries economically? Is there any value in
grouping problem areas? Just as a reference, I did a quick look at state budgets in the US and found five states with budget deficits greater than 10% in 2009: Arizona, California, Nevada, New Jersey, Rhode Island. Do you think CARINN could catch?

Debt Debaters

This post is from Andrew Zvirzdin, who used to be a guest blogger, but now joins Atlantic Review as part of the team. Andrew is originally from upstate New York and is currently finishing his second year of grad school at the Maxwell School in Syracuse

After the implosion of the Dubai miracle in the desert, investors are nervously looking elsewhere for the next debt debacle. No small wonder that the focus has turned to European countries with high debt loads such as Greece and Italy. Top European monetary gurus have been quick to assure investors that no European default is likely. But these days, anyone with a big credit card bill looks suspect in international finance.

The remarkable thing is that the EU has taken a significant lead in charting the course towards global economic recovery, despite its heavy debt burden. Consider for example that Germany and France were among the first countries to escape the present recession late this summer. Their robust growth was due in part to automatic stabilizers already in place when the financial crisis hit. And the notorious-and by some estimates, beneficial-cash-for-clunkers program in the US was inspired by Germany and other European countries who already had similar but more successful programs.

Now, as Europe is fading as the American health care punching bag, the continent's ability to live with government debt is under close scrutiny. Paul Krugman has recently warned (here and here) against an excessive focus on fiscal deficits in the US, pointing to Europe as an example: "If these countries can run up debts of more than 100 percent of GDP without being destroyed by bond vigilantes, so can we." CNBC is less positive in its assessment but acknowledges that Italy's resilience despite high debt levels means there is still a "lot of debt tolerance out there."

Still, debt will remain a worry on everyone's mind for some time to come, though the Eurozone has the tools needed to weather this storm (as I have written about here and here), and the US still has its financial strength. With the US and European countries consistently ranked as among the most indebted countries in the world, both sides of the Atlantic will likely need to work together on debt-related matters. Indeed, as the eurozone has already shown, teaming up with other indebted nations makes it that much harder to be bullied around by international markets.

America's Huge Health Care Costs

Americans and Europeans spend the same share of GDP on health care and education. "Properly measured, Mars and Venus spend the same share of income on these tasks," concludes Jacob Funk Kirkegaard from the Peterson Institute for International Economics: "The only meaningful difference between US and European expenditure levels is in private-sector healthcare spending, where the US private sector spends about three times more on healthcare than its European private-sector counterparts." (Read a summary of his paper on Atlantic-Community.org.)

Do Americans get better health care, given that their GDP is bigger than Europe's? Nope, in 2006, the "US performed poorly -placing last, in fact - among the six countries surveyed on six key domains of healthcare: Patient Safety, Effectiveness, Patient-Centeredness, Timeliness, Efficiency and Equity," writes Dialog International.

Related posts on Atlantic Review: "If It's From Europe, Forget It" and Other Comments on Health Care and Europeans are taller than Americans.

How to pay for Katrina and Rita?

Update: The Red Cross has not received enough donations after Katrina, reports the Washington Post today:

The American Red Cross asked Americans to give more to help hurricane victims, saying the $853 million donated for Katrina is less than half what's needed. Rita will require even more.

Congress has not yet agreed on how to pay for the estimated $ 200 billion to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Katrina's destruction, but NASA proudly presented plans to spend $104 billion to return to the moon. While Rita's destructions will increase the federal bill and the debate about national spending priorities considerably, Katrina has, according to the Dallas Morning News, already

reopened the fiscal and social debate about how the nation can care for the poor and pay for the retirement of the baby boom generation while maintaining tax and economic policies that stimulate investment and growth. Those concerns, combined with worries about chronic budget deficits, have spurred lawmakers and lobbyists to dust off their favorite ideas on taxes, spending and pork.

Pressure to get out of Iraq intensifies as well.... Here are some of the proposals to pay for the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast:

Continue reading "How to pay for Katrina and Rita?"