Greece’s perfect debt trap

Greece’s perfect debt trap

The longer we spend in the hole the harder it is to get out. As long as the negotiations with the troika are not finished and the economy is starved of cash, as long as businesses cannot plan for the next day and citizens remain wary of returning cash to the banks, recovery becomes even more difficult. The government promises that after a positive evaluation by creditors the economy will bounce back like a spring released. Even if we were to accept this theory – which would also demand huge investments – a positive evaluation is still the prerequisite.

Despite the progress made in the talks, the economy is deteriorating. Indicative of this is a growing inability to pay taxes. Today outstanding tax debts exceed 87 billion euros. At the end of 2012 they were at 55.1 billion. They have grown by 32 billion euros since then, equaling the amount raised by tax rate increases over the same period (as Kathimerini reports on Friday). In the first quarter of 2016, outstanding debts increased by 3.22 billion and, by the end of the year, may exceed last year’s total of 13.48 billion. Nonperforming bank loans, which were at 8.2 percent of the total at the start of 2010, were at 36.4 percent at the end of 2015. Unpaid dues to social security funds came to 15.78 billion euros at the end of the first quarter, from 13.02 billion last September.

The swelling of these debts did not begin under this government. Previous governments and opposition parties, as well as creditors, all played a role in this. From the start of the crisis, citizens/taxpayers have been buffeted by uncertainty, despair and anger. The expectation of debt relief encouraged delays in payments, while excessive taxation meant that outstanding payments multiplied. Also, the state, unable to meet its own obligations, held back on paying what it owed to taxpayers. With the worsening economy and the lack of trust, capital controls were inevitable and, of course, drove us deeper into trouble.

This anxiety is set to continue. The government cannot undertake the burden of what creditors demand, and the creditors, in turn, appear disinclined to help out. As the Federation of Greek Industries noted in its weekly bulletin on Thursday: “The government’s insistence on raising taxes instead of cutting expenses, and the recessionary impact that this will have on the economy, leads to the troika’s shortsighted persistence on contingency measures which, unfortunately, increase further the recessionary wave and will be the final blow to the economy.”

We are caught in the perfect trap. As long as the negotiations drag on, the instability and lack of confidence will increase outstanding debt at all levels, prevent growth and, in turn, demand even harsher measures. The only way out is for both the government and creditors to show good will and trust each other. After the past year this seems a most unlikely leap of faith.

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