Consumer-driven growth is no substitute for structrural reform

Some consider them instruments of evil, but others simply take advantage of the benefits they offer. Whatever your view of credit cards, one thing is certain: they, along with mortgages, are largely responsible for today’s living standards. Lending to households is rising rapidly, ensuring that private consumption stays high and the economy keeps moving. Apart from consumption, the economy’s other constituent parts seem unable to offer higher incomes or create new jobs. The external sector is not in good shape. Exports are down, as is tourism revenue. By contrast, shipping revenue is a life saver for the balance of payments, but the sector is not labor-intensive and cannot bolster employment. New building licenses are fewer than last year, pointing to a recession in construction; also, the budget provides for cuts in public investment, with a commensurate impact. Meanwhile, the Greek farming sector is going through a painful stage of adjustment. The farmers prefer to stick to the crops they know, but the prices of most are in decline; even if they reap more, they will have less income. And artificial delays or obstacles to imports cannot save them, either. European Union-subsidized investment programs are faltering due to difficulties in implementation. Only the volume of retail sales bucks the gloom, with a rise of 4.5 percent. Nevertheless, commercial prosperity is not evenly distributed; the large chains are gaining ground at the expense of small retailers, many of whom will no doubt go out of business in coming months. The traditional trend, when those without a college education and unable to find a public sector job opened a shop, is fading. There are tens of thousands of shopkeepers who will find themselves in dire straits. The only way out of this stagnation is in a direction which everyone is avoiding. With the exception, perhaps, of Bank of Greece Governor Nicholas Garganas, no one puts emphasis on the need for structural changes. In fact those avoiding it are those who should be doing something to prepare them, implement them or even benefit from them. Worse, structural changes are not among the government’s current priorities. So far, we have learned about the true state of public finances but have seen no structural changes. The present situation, however, seems to suit the labor unions, which have no reason to upset the existing balance, but also businesspeople. The latter’s demands do not go beyond pressing for cuts in taxes – which are, indeed, a burden on costs – and for reducing red tape. But without policy measures designed to open up markets and improve profitability, neither businesses nor labor unions have a future. There could, at least, be structural measures that do not upset existing habits and policies, like public projects financed jointly with the private sector. And this has to be done quickly.