The new Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis is all over the international media these day and surprise, surprise he is making a lot more sense than a lot of people (including myself) had feared.
I have certainly not been optimistic about what the new hardcore leftist Greek government would come up with. However, I most admit that I have some (considerable) sympathy for the fact that Greek public finance problems are not entirely a result of Greek economic-political mismanagement (even though there has been a lot of that).
Hence, the sharp rise in Greek public debt to GDP since 2008 to large extent is a result of the collapse of Greek nominal GDP and I have often been arguing that we do not (primarily) have a debt crisis in the euro zone. We have a nominal GDP crisis and the euro crisis is primarily a result of overly tight monetary policy.
While Varoufakis certainly is not a monetarist he fully well understands that at the core of the Greek crisis is the collapse in NGDP and I was very pleasantly surprised to see his proposal for a new Greek debt deal with the EU.
This is what Financial Times writes about Varoufakis’ new proposals:
Attempting to sound an emollient note, Mr Varoufakis told the Financial Times the government would no longer call for a headline write-off of Greece’s €315bn foreign debt. Rather it would request a “menu of debt swaps” to ease the burden, including two types of new bonds.
The first type, indexed to nominal economic growth, would replace European rescue loans, and the second, which he termed “perpetual bonds”, would replace European Central Bank-owned Greek bonds.
He said his proposal for a debt swap would be a form of “smart debt engineering” that would avoid the need to use a term such as a debt “haircut”, politically unacceptable in Germany and other creditor countries because it sounds to taxpayers like an outright loss.
So Varoufakis is suggesting is to swap the Greek debt to the EU (and ECB) with nominal GDP linked bonds. What can I say? Great idea Yanis!
I have of course for years be arguing that governments should issue debt linked to nominal GDP – not only because NGDP linked bonds would provide a very good measure of the monetary policy stance, but also because it would be good from a public finance perspective (and from a general macroeconomic stability perspective).
I therefore wholeheartedly support Varoufakis’ proposal – as a general principle to debt restructuring. Obviously to make a deal it should be in the common interest of both the EU and Greece and there are certainly very good arguments against just sending another big cheque to Athens. But this is exactly the point – this would (in general) be in the interest of both Greek and German taxpayers.
What we want to see is a situation where Greek government continues to service its debt. But we also want a situation where this doesn’t push Greece to a disorderly default and a disorderly exit, which would jeopardize economic and financial stability in Europe. I believe that a new debt deal that to a larger extent links Greek public debt to the future developments in nominal GDP would make it easier for Greece to service the debt, but also make it less likely that we get a disorderly collapse.
How would it work?
The general idea with NGDP linked bonds is that the servicing of the public debt is linked to the performance of Greek NGDP. This would mean that if growth picked up in Greece then the Greek government would pay of more debt, while is NGDP growth slows then Greece will pay of less debt.
This of course would make Greek public finances much less sensitive to shocks to NGDP and therefore reduce the likelihood that the Greek government would be forced to defaults if growth fails to pick-up. On the other hand German taxpayers should welcome that if there I a pick-up in NGDP growth in Greece then the Greek government would actually pay back its debt faster than under the present debt agreement.
Furthermore, more if public debt servicing is linked to the development in NGDP growth then Greek public finances would become significantly more counter-cyclical rather than pro-cyclical.
Jens Weidmann should be Varoufakis’ best friend
Hence, there are some very clear advantages with NGDP linked bonds. The most important, however, might be that if Greek public debt is linked to NGDP then it would significantly ease the pressure on the ECB to do things that fundamentally has nothing to do with monetary policy.
The ECB’s job odd to be to ensure nominal stability in the euro zone economy. It is not and should not be the job of ECB to bail out governments and banks. Unfortunately again and again over the past six years the ECB has been forced to bailout euro zone countries for example through the so-called OMT programme. Hence, ECB has again and again conducted credit policy (rather than monetary policy) to avoid euro zone countries defaulting.
The ECB is largely to blame for this itself because it has kept monetary conditions far too tight. However, it does not change the fact that the ECB has been under tremendous pressure to bailout nations and banks rather than conduct sound monetary policies.
By linking Greek public debt to NGDP (in Greece) Greek public finances would be more immune to monetary policy failure in the euro zone.
And this is why the hawkish Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann should be an enthusiastical support for Varoufakis’ debt plan as the “cost” of tight monetary policies in the euro zone would be smaller.
Just imagine that all public debt in the euro zone had been linked one-to-one to euro zone NGDP. The ECB might have failed in 2008 to keep NGDP “on track”, but there would not have been any public finances crisis in the euro zone as public debt to (N)GDP ratios would have remained fairly stable and it would have been very unlikely that Greece would have needed an bailout. In such a situation the pressure to the ECB to support government lending would have been much smaller.
The graph below illustrates the very close correlation between NGDP growth and public debt developments in the euro zone. Greek debt ratio spiked primarily because Greek NGDP growth collapsed.
I have a lot of sympathy for the “German view” that the ECB should not bailout banks and countries, but if the ECB fails to deliver nominal stability it is unavoidable that there will be pressure on the ECB to do things it shouldn’t be doing.
Therefore, Jens Weidmann should not only endorse the general principle that Greek public debt to a larger extent should be linked to NGDP growth, but he should also advocate that public debt across the euro zone should be NGDP linked as it would significantly reduce the pressures the ECB to conduct problematic credit policies, which increases moral hazard problems.
Varoufakis should pay tribute to David Eagle
Yanis Varoufakis probably never heard of David Eagle. In fact most economists never heard of David Eagle. However, I believe that David is the economist in the world who has done the most interesting academic work on what he has termed quasi-real indexing. David’s work centres on both the principle of making debt linked to the development in nominal GDP and on the advantages of NGDP targeting.
David back in 2012 wrote a numbers of very insightful guess posts on this blog about these topics. Everybody interested in the theoretically foundation for Varoufakis’ ideas should read this guest post. Here is an overview:
Supporting NGDP-linked bonds, but not the entire “Syriza package”
I have in this blog post voiced my support for the Greek Finance Minister’s suggests for a debt swap based on NGDP bonds. I should stress that that does certainly not mean that I in any other way supports the Greek government’s economic proposals. In fact I am deeply concerned about some of the ideas, which has been floated by the Greek government. The governing Syriza party is an extreme leftist party, which is strongly opposed to the free markets ideals I hold dearly, but on the issue of the desirability of NGDP linked bonds the Greek government has my full support.