Spending keeps economy going — but for how long?

We have a spending-oriented economy: everything hinges on ever-increasing spending, both by the wider public sector and by households and companies, a trend which has greatly accelerated in recent years. There is really nothing to fault in this; besides, spending and consuming are seen as integral virtues of the economic culture we are part of, even if we often complain about its guardians, the United States and the other world economic leaders. The problem cited by the «grumblers» is linked to a simple and common puzzle of the economy: How is it possible for someone to keep spending more than the wealth he creates? The initial answer is rather simple: New spending is based on inflationary incomes, official and otherwise, produced by our overheated national economy. This is not going to change, not this year or next, the Olympic year. A few figures are useful. Annual government spending amounts to no less than 42 billion euros; just five years ago it was just one quarter of this, 10.6 billion euros. Public investment rose from 1.8 billion to 9 billion euros in the same period. Social security organizations, part of the huge public sector, are budgeted to pay out this year 16 billion, against 2.8 billion euros in 1998; and spending by public enterprises has reached 14 billion euros from just 3.4 billion five years ago. At the same time, note that the overall debt of the central government, including of public organizations and firms, now exceeds 165 billion euros. Greece’s imports were the equivalent of 20 billion euros in 1995 and could reach 34 billion this year. Their average annual rate of growth is more than 8 percent, while our trade deficit is growing at a clip of more than 10 percent. Of course, this poses no urgent problem, as there is no longer a drachma which can be devalued. But a much bigger problem of competitiveness arises, running through the veins of the economy like poison and destroying its productive potential in the long run. At the same time, foreign investors are on the retreat – direct investment fell by 20 billion euros in the 2000-2002 period. The naturally volatile portfolio investment registered a net outflow of more than 180 billion euros in the same period. The country’s foreign exchange reserves, which no longer play the same crucial role in the age of the euro, fell from 13 billion to 9 billion euros. A small example of the «consumption flight» forward is the rise of net spending for oil to 4 billion euros this year from 3 billion in 2000, when crude prices were already high. Moreover, the special index which tracks the volume of retail sales, after deducting for inflation, stood at 115 points in April 2003, against 90 points in 1998. The pertinent question regarding these figures is: What are the income sources for all this spending? For sure, tourism is not one of them: revenue from this sector seems to have stuck around 10 billion euros annually in recent years. Nor are salaries and pensions, even if they have risen by something more than inflation. The main source evidently is payments for investment in infrastructure, both from the national budget and the EU, creating additional incomes. But these mainly create additional profits and huge opportunities for hidden incomes. It is the infamous Greek black economy which sustains the consumption race, supported and enjoyed only by some groups of the population. The others, so that they aren’t left behind, are drawing on savings, which have been on a downward slide. Over-consumption and the black economy coexist, attested to by the frenzied rise in private-sector loans. Total borrowing by companies and households is approaching 100 billion euros, against just 28 billion in 1998. Of this, households account for slightly under 40 billion euros, compared to 17 billion in 1999. It looks like we are bound to be soon reminded of the old (1985) slogan, «we consume more than we produce,» which many hoped would not be forgotten as the country progressed toward its promised modernization. The question is, who will remind us?