As Americans observe the chaos in Greece, most assume that the strength of our currency, the credit worthiness of our government, and the vast expanse of two oceans, will prevent a similar scene from playing out in our streets. I believe these protections to be illusory.
Once again the vast majority fails to see a crisis in the making, even as it stares at them from close range. Just as market observers in 2007 told us that the credit crisis would be confined to the subprime mortgage market, current analysts tell us that sovereign debt problems are confined to Greece, Spain, Portugal, and perhaps Italy. They were wrong then, and I believe that they’re wrong now.
During the housing boom, subprime and prime borrowers made many of the same mistakes. Both groups overpaid for their homes, bought with low or no down payments, financed using ARMs instead of fixed rate mortgages, and repeatedly cashed out appreciated home equity through re-financings. The market largely overlooked the glaring similarities, and instead merely focused on FICO scores. Yes, prime borrowers had better credit, but their losses on underwater properties were no less devastating. As the magnitude of home price declines intensified, prime borrowers defaulted in levels that were almost as high as the subprime crowd.
So when mortgage backed securities started to go bad, it wasn’t as if the problems emanated in subprime and subsequently “contaminated” the rest of the market. All borrowers were infected with the same disease, but the symptoms merely expressed themselves sooner in subprime. The same is true on a national level, whereby Greece plays the part of the subprime borrower. Though the U.S. is considered to be the highest order of “prime” borrower, based on historic precedent, our debt to GDP levels are at crisis levels, and are not that much lower than Portugal or Spain. When off-budget and contingency liabilities are properly accounted for, one could argue that we are already in worse financial shape than Greece.
Most importantly, like Greece (and homeowners who relied on adjustable rate mortgages), we have a high percentage of short-term debt that is vulnerable to rising rates. The one key difference is that while Greece borrows in euros, a currency it cannot print, America borrows in dollars, which we can print endlessly. In reality however, this is a distinction with very little substantive difference.
What if Greece had not been a member of the euro zone and had instead borrowed in their former currency, the drachma? First, given its past history of fiscal shortfalls, Greece would not have been able to borrow nearly as much as it had (They may well have been forced to borrow in euros anyway). Under those circumstances, creditors would have been more reluctant to lend without the possibility of a German led bailout. Had Greece never adopted the euro as its currency, but nevertheless borrowed in euros, it would now face the same difficult choices, but would not be offered the carrots or sticks provided by other euro zone nations that are worried about the integrity of their currency. The IMF would have been Greece’s only possible savior.
Many of our top economists now argue that all would be well in Greece if the country was in charge of its own currency. In such a scenario, Greece would indeed have had no problems printing as many drachmas needed to pay its debts. However, would this really be a “get out of debt free” card for Greece?
The main reason the Greeks are protesting in the streets is that they do not want their benefits reduced or taxes raised to repay foreign creditors. But despite the likely domestic popularity of a drachma-printing policy, would it really get the Greeks off the hook? They would stiff their creditors by repaying them in currency of diminished value. But the same result could be achieved through an honest debt restructuring, which would involve “haircuts” for all creditors. In a restructuring, the pain falls most squarely on those who foolishly lent money to a “subprime” borrower.
But with inflation it’s not just foreign creditors who would suffer. Every Greek citizen who has savings in drachma would suffer. Every Greek citizen who works for wages would suffer. Sure nominal benefits are preserved and taxes are not raised, but real purchasing power is destroyed. If the cost of living goes up, the reduction in the value of government benefits is just as real.
Of course, the negative effects on the economy of run-a-way inflation and skyrocketing interest rates are worse than what otherwise might result from an honest restructuring or even out right default. It is just amazing how few economists understand this simple fact.
Just because we can inflate does not mean we can escape the consequences of our actions. One way or another the piper must be paid. Either benefits will be cut or the real value of those benefits will be reduced. In fact, it is precisely because we can inflate our problems away that they now loom so large. With no one forcing us to make the hard choices, we constantly take the easy way out.
When creditors ultimately decide to curtail loans to America, U.S. interest rates will finally spike, and we will be confronted with even more difficult choices than those now facing Greece. Given the short maturity of our national debt, a jump in short-term rates would either result in default or massive austerity. If we choose neither, and opt to print money instead, the run-a-way inflation that will ensue will produce an even greater austerity than the one our leaders lacked the courage to impose. Those who believe rates will never rise as long as the Fed remains accommodative, or that inflation will not flare up as long as unemployment remains high, are just as foolish as those who assured us that the mortgage market was sound because national real estate prices could never fall.