What is the reason for the Greek crisis?

Never found the connection: The causes of the Greek tragedy

Notwithstanding the no-bailout clause, which should exclude the liability of the euro states for bad checks by individual members, Greece's government deficit, which has gotten out of hand, is financed with loans from the euro group. With this emergency aid, the impending national bankruptcy was initially averted. However, it remains to be seen whether the Greek patient was able to recover in the long term: Are the causes of the Greek tragedy only to be found in budgetary policy or are they deeper? There is much to suggest that the imbalance in the Greek national budget is a reflection of the country's weak economic power, which is not sufficient to cover the living prosperity. Without a healthy economic base, Greece would have a hard time breaking away from the drip of international emergency aid. The question that needs to be answered is whether the Greek case is just an “industrial accident” that is quickly forgotten in a global recovery. Or does Greece have fundamental economic problems, for example because it has never caught up with European and global economic development?

A victim of the crisis?

The no-bailout clause of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (Art. 125 TFEU) has so far appeared to be an effective disciplinary instrument for the financial conduct of the euro states. Each Member State had the certainty that it was responsible for its own debts. In view of the threatened bankruptcy of Greece, however, this principle has been deviated from: recourse is now being made to the provision of assistance in Article 122 TFEU, which allows financial assistance in the event of an exceptional event beyond the control of the Member State concerned and difficulties of considerable importance for economic welfare. It is assumed that the economic and financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 was an extraordinary event in this sense, the consequences of which can no longer be controlled by the Greek government

According to this line of argument, Greece would have contributed to its unfortunate situation before the crisis through an irregular debt policy, but the imbalance of the national budget would only have become an existential problem as a result of the crisis. The extraordinary event is seen in the general economic and financial crisis, which is the real cause of the threatened bankruptcy of Greece. Thus it is justified to override the no-bailout clause and instead to give priority to support article 122 TFEU.

However, this line of argument is not entirely convincing: the European Monetary Union is based on a promise of stability that is credible not least from the no-bailout clause. The long-term stability of the monetary union will be permanently damaged if a bailout is permitted as a “last resort” during the first serious stress test. Limiting the bailout to overcoming the current crisis and tying financial aid to conditions are not a suitable substitute for a robust promise of stability. This would open the door to imitation. If a bailout should be legally permissible, there would be a need for improvement in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The “last resort” would have to be the orderly bankruptcy of a member state, which enables a new beginning on its own and under its own responsibility.

What speaks against a bailout in the case of Greece is that the impending national bankruptcy is the consequence of longstanding government mismanagement. It is only the latter that deserves the title “exceptional”. In no year since the introduction of the euro has Greece been able to comply with the Maastricht criteria for the budget deficit and the level of government debt (see Figure 1). The economic and financial crisis has led to an increase in the national deficit in all the countries of the Eurogroup, but not with the same drastic consequences as in the case of Greece. For many years Greece was able to build up a high level of national debt with impunity, sometimes while concealing the actual budget situation. At 115% of GDP in 2009, this was significantly higher than that of other euro countries, such as Portugal, Spain or Ireland, which also have to endure a budget crisis.2 The escalation of the Greek crisis can be traced back to a long history of debt, which has now resulted in the loss of the Means creditworthiness of the Greek state. For this reason alone, Greece's role as a victim must be questioned.

illustration 1
Greek double deficit and debt 2001-2015

* Preliminary values ​​and estimates according to IMF.

Source: Eurostat: Euroindicators press release, 55/2010, 22 April, Luxembourg 2010; European Commission: Report on Greece's Government Deficit and Debt Statistics, Brussels, January 2010; IMF: Greece: Staff Report on Request for Stand-By Arrangement, IMF Country Report No. 10/110, May, Washington, D.C., 2010; OECD: SourceOECD, OECD.StatExtracts, Gross Domestic Product, Paris 2010, via Internet; own representation.

The double deficit

A look at the budget deficit does not go far enough to explain the Greek misery - it is not only the state budget that is affected. After all, after joining the European Monetary Union, the whole country systematically lived beyond its means. A consumption rate that has consistently been in the 90% range over the past ten years is symptomatic of this (see Figure 2). The consumption expenditure of private households alone amounted to more than 70% of GDP until 2009, while the consumption rate of German households, for example, was about 15 percentage points lower according to Eurostat data. Greek domestic demand exceeded GDP by an average of more than 11%, taking into account the recent drop in gross investment to below 20%.

Figure 2
Greek GDP structure 2000-2009

Source: Eurostat: Statistics, National Accounts, GDP and Main Components, Luxembourg 2010, via the Internet; own representation.

The resulting current account deficit is therefore not an “extraordinary event”, but reveals a fundamental weakness in the Greek economy: after the introduction of the euro, the trade deficit rose rapidly, while the traditional service surplus increased only to a lesser extent. In 2008, a trade deficit of US $ 65 billion was set against a surplus in trade in services of only US $ 26 billion (see Figure 3). An additional burden on the current account is the negative balance in income from work and property: This rose from US $ 0.9 billion in 2000 to US $ 16 billion in 2008. This is where the growing interest burden makes itself felt the increased debt is noticeable on the international capital markets. The surplus in the transfer balance of US $ 4.2 billion (2008), in particular due to EU payments, is too small a counterbalance. The same applies to the positive balance on asset transfers of US $ 6 billion, which also includes payments from the EU to Greece. 3

Figure 3
The Greek Current Account Problem 2000-20091

1 Preliminary figures from IMF and Bank of Greece for 2009.

Source: IMF: Greece: Staff Report on Request for Stand-By Arrangement, IMF Country Report No. 10/110, May, Washington, D.C., 2010; Bank of Greece: Balance of Payments, Athens 2010, via Internet; own representation.

A look back to the eighties and nineties also shows that the Greek current account deficit is by no means an “extraordinary event”: There were significant trade deficits, which could not be compensated by surpluses in the services account and by payment inflows from transfers, existed both for the years before the accession to the European Community (EC) in 1981 as well as for the whole phase afterwards. While the current account deficit was 2.2% of GDP in 1975, it reached up to 3.1% of GDP in individual years after accession. Until 1991 there was not a year in which Greece had a current account surplus. As a result of the opening of the borders for imports from the countries of the core EU - as in Portugal and Spain, by the way - the trade and current account deficits increased rapidly. The import quota for goods and services taken together rose comparatively quickly between 1980 and 1990 from 26 to 34% of GDP, while the corresponding export quota rose much more slowly from 21 to 25%

Little changed in this development in the period that followed. Current account deficits were usually between 1.5% and 3% of GDP. In the new millennium, the 5% mark was exceeded for the first time in 2003, and double-digit deficits have been the rule since 2006.5 The chronic current account deficit was associated with a net inflow of resources, which, however, in Greece - unlike in Portugal and Spain - was already essentially consumption was used.

The development in the crisis year 2009 shows that in the course of the shrinking economic activity the Greek deficit problem was by no means defused: Although the trade deficit fell due to a disproportionately low import volume, the surplus in services also decreased at the same time. Since the surplus in current transfers also collapsed by more than half, the current account deficit was 11% of GDP, after almost 15% in 2008. Due to the simultaneous decline in capital transfers, counter-financing had to be provided again via the capital markets, with securities and Portfolio investments increased by more than two thirds. 6

Therefore, it is not just the state budget: up to the crisis year 2009, both private and state consumption were satisfied to a considerable extent by imports, which were ultimately financed by credit, because the Greek export base evidently proved to be too weak to provide a counterbalance to care. Thanks to the high credit rating of the euro, Greece was able to refinance itself at relatively low costs in line with the increasing consumption needs. However, since the outbreak of the crisis, financing via the capital markets has only been possible with the payment of high interest surcharges, as Greece's own creditworthiness had become a criterion for new loans. In the meantime, the risk of default seems so high that direct loans or guarantees from the Euro Group have to be used. However, it is doubtful whether this emergency aid will be granted in the long term, as permanent alimentation within the Euro Group could not be arranged. The Greek consumption level could therefore only be maintained if growth were generated through an expansion of exports and the trade deficit reduced or the surplus of services increased. But is the competitiveness of the Greek economy sufficient to preserve the living prosperity? Or are deep cuts in the Greek standard of living inevitable?

Weak competition in the goods markets

During the last decade, many catching-up economies have known how to take advantage of the opportunities offered by globalization: By integrating them into global production networks and the associated technology transfer, it has been possible to increase the competitiveness of domestic locations and the proportion of higher-quality productions. Even an industrial country with strong exports like Germany was able to continue to benefit from the dynamically growing network of world markets and to expand its foreign trade considerably. The German export quota rose from 29% in 2000 to more than 39% in 2008 (see Figure 4). Although the crisis in 2009 led to a global slump in exports, there were signs of another significant recovery on world markets as early as 2010.

Figure 4
The Greek and German export intensity 2000-2009
Exports of goods in% of GDP

Source: Eurostat: Statistics, External Trade, Luxembourg 2010, via the Internet; own representation and calculations.

Globalization seems to have largely bypassed Greece. Since the country joined the monetary union, the country's relatively low export rate of goods has even fallen from around 9% in 2000 to just over 7% (2008) and around 6% (2009). In addition, there are clear deficits in the technological value of Greek exports.

In general, the export focus of highly developed industrialized countries is on technology- and human-capital-intensive goods, referred to here as mobile and immobile Schumpeter goods (MSI, ISI). This distinction stems from the fact that in Schumpeter-immobile industries research and development and production, unlike in mobile industries, can only be spatially separated with difficulty. Germany is a prime example of a highly developed industrialized country that has comparative competitive advantages in these types of goods in particular and with a share of more than 60% has its export focus there (see Table 1). It can also be observed that the catching up new EU members in Central and Eastern Europe are gaining market shares in this area in particular and are thus contributing to an intensification of intra-European location competition

Table 1
Foreign trade structure and international competitiveness according to factor intensities1,2
Raw material intensive
Labor intensive
Capital intensive
Mobile Schumpeter goods
Immobile Schumpeter goods

1 In% of total exports or total imports (specialty trade).
2 The RCA values ​​for i Product groups were calculated using the following formula: RCAi = ln [(exporti : Importi): (ΣExporti : ΣImporti)].
RCA = Revealed Comparative Advantage.

Source: Eurostat: Comext Intra- and Extra-EU Trade Database, Luxembourg 2009; H. Klodt: Race for the future: technology policy in international comparison, Kieler Studien 206, Tübingen 1987; own compilation and calculations.

The picture of Greek exports is different: More than 50% of these still consist of raw material and labor-intensive goods - an indicator of economic development deficits. Accordingly, in 2008 only around 25% of technology-intensive goods were exported; Despite a positive trend, the international competitive disadvantages persist, as the "Revealed Comparative Advantage" in Table 1 shows. The picture is completely different in Central and Eastern Europe: Countries such as Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic or Hungary now have shares of 40 to 60% in MSI and ISI goods, which is associated with a significant increase in international competitiveness .

The picture is similarly unfavorable when one compares the regional export structure of Greece with that of other countries: Greek suppliers are comparatively weakly represented in important and dynamic export markets. For example, the current share of Greek exports to the so-called BRIC countries8 is barely a third of the corresponding German share (see Table 2). In other important markets in Latin America and Asia, the Greek share is only a quarter of the German, and Greek exporters are less present than German exporters in the important North American markets. It is significant that many products are apparently not competitive enough to conquer the core markets of the EU-15 - here, Greece's exports are almost 11 percentage points behind those of Germany.

Table 2
The regional export structures of Germany and Greece in 2009
in% of total goods exports
Destination countryGermanyGreece
BRIC countries19,43,0
Important emerging markets24,01,1
North American Markets37,35,5
Traditional partners in Europe  
EU new11,021,7
A total of100,0100,0
Total in billions of euros808,214,4

1 Brazil, Russia, India, China.
2 Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam.
3 USA and Canada.

Source: Hellenic Statistical Authority: Greek Imports and Exports by Country for 2009, data supplied June 2010, Piraeus; Federal Statistical Office: Foreign trade, summary overviews for foreign trade (preliminary results) 2009, Fachserie 7, Reihe 1, Wiesbaden 2010; own compilation and calculations.

Basically, Greece has never left its historical development path, which was already characterized by inflexible foreign trade structures when it joined the EC. Even then, the export side was more dominated by traditional products. In the early phase up to admission to the Community in 1981, there was only a growing export share in textiles, clothing and mineral products - other industrial finished goods remained largely insignificant. The share of food exports remained almost unchanged: Agricultural processing products traditionally played a major role in the Greek export range.

At the beginning of the 1990s, too, unlike Portugal and Spain, Greece continued to rely on traditional export goods, as demonstrated by the increase in food and raw material exports. In the industrial sector, as was the case a decade before, the high export shares of consumer goods from the textile and leather sector as well as iron, steel and non-ferrous metals in raw materials and semi-finished goods were decisive. The comparatively insignificant mechanical engineering sector was hardly able to achieve any growth, and the competitiveness of capital goods remained weak

Overall, a look at the historical trade structures of Greece confirms the low flexibility of the Greek economy. Even after joining the EC, the country stagnated in terms of structural economic change. It was unable to catch up with the other member states - in contrast to Portugal and Spain, which at least made progress

Rescue through services?

A traditional strength of the Greek economy is the export of services. From joining the monetary union until the crisis year 2009, Greece had consistently more than twice as high an export quota in the service trade compared to Germany (see Figure 5). However, the potential here seems to have been exhausted: Greece's exports of services have not grown dynamically enough to compensate for Greek competitive weakness on the goods markets. On the contrary, in the last decade there has been stagnation or a slightly negative trend in the relative weight of service exports - in the global boom after 2004, the service surplus in relation to the trade deficit even shrank.

Figure 5
Greek and German service exports 2000-2009
Service exports as% of GDP

Source: Eurostat: Statistics, Balance of Payments, Luxembourg 2010, via the Internet; own representation and calculations.

The Greek export of services is characterized by two heavyweights: transport services and tourism services. The transport services grew disproportionately in the years 2000 to 2008 and have outstripped the export of tourism services with a share of more than 50% in the last few years. These are predominantly sea transports, the development of which was closely linked to the dynamically growing world trade. 11

In contrast, there was no comparable dynamic in the tourism services in Greece: Over the years, there has been a picture of stagnation - even in the global boom years. The most important buyers of tourist services for Greece, Germany and Great Britain, have even gradually reduced their imports since 2005 - especially Germany, which, however, is still the most important buyer with a share of almost 18%

It is to be expected that the recovery on the world markets will bring the sea traffic, which had shrunk in 2009, back on its expansion path, even if the level of 2008 does not seem attainable for the time being. Tourism suffered minor losses in 2009 because it is not so strongly influenced by the development of world trade. However, the reverse is also true: the global recovery is expected to generate little impetus for the export of tourism services. Overall, therefore, there is no foreseeable contribution from trade in services that could sustainably reduce the Greek current account deficit.

Saving is not enough

As a result of the global financial and economic crisis, a Greek creditworthiness problem was uncovered, which can be traced back to longstanding government mismanagement as well as to structural problems that have never been overcome. Since joining the EC, Greece has not succeeded in developing competitive economic structures that can assert themselves on the European internal market and make appropriate use of the freedoms of the intra-Community movement of goods and services. Since the opportunities of globalization were also not seized, the level of prosperity in Greece is obviously not in line with its economic strength. In the meantime, Greece can no longer claim the high creditworthiness of the Eurogroup, but is rightly rated weaker by the markets due to its real economic deficits.

In this situation, austerity programs to contain the budget deficit are necessary, but not sufficient. Added to this is an increase in the competitiveness of the Greek economy. If Greece still had a national currency, a devaluation could at least temporarily increase the competitiveness of Greek goods and services. In a monetary union, this can only happen through real devaluation, i.e. through falling wages and prices, which would increase the competitiveness of Greek companies. In addition, there is a need for comprehensive structural reforms, as they have long been called for by the OECD13 in particular:

  • More competition in goods and service markets: lower administrative costs for companies; Dismantling licensing and pricing regulations in business services and retail markets; Privatization of state enterprises; more competencies and tougher sanction options for the competition authority; special promotion of competition in network industries through unbundling, privatization, price liberalization and market opening.
  • Reform of the labor market: renouncing state wage leadership; Promoting decentralized wage setting; Lowering the minimum wage; Relaxation of protection against dismissal; Increasing the employment rate of women; individual support and market-oriented qualification of the unemployed.
  • Tax reform: abolition of exemptions and tax subsidies.
  • Pension reform: pension calculation based on lifetime income; no discretionary pension increases; Abolition of incentives for early retirement and early minimum retirement; Raising the retirement age; Promotion of private retirement provision.

The way out of the crisis?

A restrictive budget policy and substantial structural reforms should enable Greece in the next three years to get by without support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Eurogroup.14 However, this goal is difficult to achieve: Greece should reduce its budget deficit to 15% by 2015 Reduce 2009 deficits. In addition, the 3% criterion is to be met for the first time from 2014 (see Figure 1). On the other hand, the Maastricht target for the state debt level of 60% of GDP will move further and further into the distance, even with a successful austerity program; at most, exceeding the 150% threshold appears to be avoidable. The state will continue to have to finance a considerable amount of new loans and debt rescheduling via the capital market - according to estimates by the IMF, the need will be more than 50 billion euros at the end of the observation period in 2015.15 However, given the economic situation in Greece the question justifies how this can be achieved without further outside help.

The IMF assumes a substantial decline in the Greek current account deficit: This is expected to fall from 11% to 2% of GDP by 2015. The decisive factor is the surplus of services, which is expected to more than double in this period. The steep growth path of the upswing years 2006 to 2008 is to be continued as early as 2010, so that the crisis-related slump in exports would already be balanced out in 2012. The decisive factor is likely to be the export of transport services, which have dominated in recent years, while expectations for tourism, which has stagnated for years, are likely to be rather low.

Another, albeit smaller, contribution is to be made by the export of goods, which is to build on the growth of the last upswing period. With goods imports falling at the same time, it is assumed that by 2011 the trade deficit will fall by almost 3.5 percentage points to less than 10% of GDP. Since it is forecast that imports will pick up again in the following years, no further reduction in the deficit is assumed.

The assumptions on which this IMF scenario is based, however, appear to be quite optimistic against the background of the foreign trade analyzes presented: The global recovery should lead to a surge in demand for Greek transport services in the short term and the negative trend in the Greek tourism sector should be broken. The goods-producing industry would have to gain a foothold in the global growth markets, which requires a leap in quality in the Greek export range.

One conclusion

Without the emergency aid from the Eurogroup, the state bankruptcy of Greece would have been inevitable. Here it takes revenge for the lack of effective mechanisms to enforce the stability criteria and the failure of the Eurogroup to intervene at an early stage. However, despite this structural flaw in the monetary union, Greece is not an innocent victim; rather, it must solve its national problems through national efforts. Otherwise the example of Greece would be imitated and the continued existence of the common currency would be put at risk.

But how realistic is the IMF's projection that assumes that external aid will expire by 2013 in the course of the country's rapid economic recovery? It is unlikely that the structural reforms that have been postponed for years will be implemented in the short term. Even if this were to happen, the structural change would take time and the reform dividend would only be realized with a time lag. In addition, even if the IMF scenario is implemented smoothly, the rising interest burden will put pressure on the current account, as the scope for reducing national debt remains limited.

Against this background, a realistic view of the Greek restructuring case would be helpful for everyone involved. The realization should prevail that Greece is less a victim of the crisis than it has been searching in vain for decades to catch up with the (real) economic development in the European Union. Therefore, a restructuring of the state budget does not go far enough, even if short and medium term austerity efforts by the state are indispensable. In the long term, only a profound structural change promises a sustainable recovery of the Greek economy.

Until the necessary structural reforms take effect, not only does the Greek state have to be modest, private consumption also has to be cut back. In Greece, the understanding must prevail that the level of prosperity must be adapted to its own economic possibilities. It will no longer be possible to finance the negative external contribution of the Greek economy via the capital markets to the same extent as before. Long-term support for Greek consumption through aid from the EU, Eurogroup or IMF is also unlikely. Rather, a real devaluation in the form of falling wages and prices will first be inevitable in order to be able to achieve the previous level of prosperity again on our own. In order to give Greece more political leeway in this situation and a positive development perspective, it may prove necessary to seriously consider a (partial) debt relief for the country. 16

From a political point of view, there may have been no alternative to Greece's bailout. Nevertheless, one should learn from past mistakes in the Eurogroup. The breach of the stability promise by individual members must be resolutely sanctioned: Penalties are rather counterproductive because they lead to a further weakening. Instead, the withdrawal of national competences in economic and financial policy would be appropriate. The orderly national bankruptcy of a country should be included as a “last resort” in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the revision of which is overdue.

Greece is the litmus test for the will of the Eurogroup to consistently enforce budgetary discipline and structural reforms in a member state. The markets will carefully monitor whether the necessary decisions are being made and whether incentives for other members to make use of the rescue package are being avoided. Despite all the skepticism, the Greek crisis should be classified correctly: Due to its economic development deficits, Greece has always been a special case that is not representative of the Eurogroup. There is no risk of contagion for other euro countries in and of themselves.

  • 1 Cf. U. Häde: Budget Discipline and Solidarity in the Sign of the Financial Crisis, in: European Journal for Business Law, 2009, no. 12, pp. 399-403; and O. Zehnpfund, M. Heimbach: Financial aid for member states in particular according to Article 122 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, German Bundestag, Scientific Services, 11, Berlin 2010.
  • 2 For 2009: Portugal: 77%, Spain: 53%, Ireland: 64% (see Eurostat: press release Euroindicators, 55/2010, April 22, Luxembourg 2010.
  • 3 See International Monetary Fund (IMF): International Financial Statistics, Balance of Payments Statistics, Country Tables, Greece, May, Washington D.C., 2010.
  • 4 Cf. C.-F. Laaser: Regulatory policy and structural change in the integration process: the example of Greece, Portugal and Spain, Kieler Studien 287, Tübingen 1997, p. 120 f.
  • 5 Calculated using data from the IMF and the OECD (see IMF: International Financial Statistics, Balance of Payments Statistics, Country Tables: Greece, Mai, Washington, DC, 2010; and OECD: SourceOECD, OECD.StatExtracts, Gross Domestic Product, Paris 2010, via the Internet http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=SNA_TABLE).
  • 6 See Bank of Greece, loc. Cit.
  • 7 Cf. C.-F. Laaser, K. Schrader: The Global Competition for Jobs in the Economic Crisis, Working Paper 297, Warsaw School of Economics, Warsaw 2009, p. 8.
  • 8 These are Brazil, Russia, India and China. According to the latest analyzes by the Economist Intelligence Unit, they are characterized by significantly disproportionate growth both ex post and in the forecast up to 2014. The same applies to other emerging countries, such as individual Mercosur members in Latin America and the ASEAN countries in Asia. The North American markets continue to promise disproportionate growth, but are lucrative due to their size (see Economist Intelligence Unit: Country Forecast World, Global Outlook, June, London 2010).
  • 9 Cf. C.-F. Laaser, supra, pp. 111 f., Pp. 119-123; and M. G. Arghyrou: EU participation and the external trade of Greece: an appraisal of the evidence, in: Applied Economics, Vol. 32, No. 2, 2000, pp. 151-159.
  • 10 Cf. also C. Papazoglou: Greece’s Potential Trade Flows: A Gravity Model Approach, in: International Advances in Economic Research, Vol. 13, No. 4, 2007, pp. 403-414.
  • 11 See Bank of Greece, loc. Cit.
  • 12 See ibid.
  • 13 Cf. OECD: Economic Surveys: Greece, Paris 2009, Vol. 15, pp. 45–56.
  • 14 See Ministry of Finance (GR): Agreement reached on 3-year reform program supported by Euro area member states and the IMF, Athens, May 17, 2010.
  • 15 Cf. IMF: Greece: Staff Report ..., loc. Cit., P. 30.
  • 16 Cf. J. Boysen-Hogrefe: Can Greece Still Be Saved? And the Euro ?, Kiel Policy Brief 19, Institute for the World Economy, Kiel 2010.