The Real Purpose of the Greek Bailout

Mark BlythThe roots of the crisis lie far away from Greece; they lie in the architecture of European banking. When the euro came into existence in 1999, not only did the Greeks get to borrow like the Germans, everyone’s banks got to borrow and lend in what was effectively a cheap foreign currency. And with super-low rates, countries clamoring to get into the euro, and a continent-wide credit boom underway, it made sense for national banks to expand private lending as far as the euro could reach.

So European banks’ asset footprints (loans and other assets) expanded massively throughout the first decade of the euro, especially into the European periphery. Indeed, according the Bank of International Settlements, by 2010 when the crisis hit, French banks held the equivalent of nearly 465 billion euros in so-called impaired periphery assets, while German banks had 493 billion on their books. Only a small part of those impaired assets were Greek, and here’s the rub: Greece made up two percent of the eurozone in 2010, and Greece’s revised budget deficit that year was 15 percent of the country’s GDP — that’s 0.3 percent of the eurozone’s economy. In other words, the Greek deficit was a rounding error, not a reason to panic. Unless, of course, the folks holding Greek debts, those big banks in the eurozone core, had, over the prior decade, grown to twice the size (in terms of assets) of — and with operational leverage ratios (assets divided by liabilities) twice as high as — their “too big to fail” American counterparts, which they had done. In such an over-levered world, if Greece defaulted, those banks would need to sell other similar sovereign assets to cover the losses. But all those sell contracts hitting the market at once would trigger a bank run throughout the bond markets of the eurozone that could wipe out core European banks.

Clearly something had to be done to stop the rot, and that something was the troika program for Greece, which succeeded in stopping the bond market bank run — keeping the Greeks in and the yields down — at the cost of making a quarter of Greeks unemployed and destroying nearly a third of the country’s GDP. Consequently, Greece is now just 1.7 percent of the eurozone, and the standoff of the past few months has been over tax and spending mixes of a few billion euros. Why, then, was there no deal for Greece, especially when the IMF’s own research has said that these policies are at best counterproductive, and how has such a small economy managed to generate such a mortal threat to the euro?

—Mark Blyth
A Pain in the Athens

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