It reads like a dry, 1,184-word memorandum about fiscal projections. But the International Monetary Fund’s memo on Greek debt sustainability, explaining why the I.M.F. cannot participate in a new bailout program unless other European countries agree to huge debt relief for Greece, has provided the “Emperor Has No Clothes” moment of the Greek crisis, one that may finally force eurozone members to either move closer to fiscal union or break up.
The I.M.F. memo amounts to an admission that the eurozone cannot work in its current form. It lays out three options for achieving Greek debt sustainability, all of which are tantamount to a fiscal union, an arrangement through which wealthier countries would make payments to support the Greek economy. Not coincidentally, this is the solution many economists have been telling European officials is the only way to save the euro — and which northern European countries have been resisting because it is so costly.
The three options laid out by the I.M.F. would have different operations, but they share an important feature: They involve other European countries giving Greece money without expecting to get it back. These transfers would be additional to the approximately 86 billion euros in new loans contemplated in Monday’s deal.
“Wait a minute,” you might say. “The I.M.F. isn’t calling for a fiscal union; it’s calling for debt relief.” But once a debt relief program becomes big enough, this becomes a distinction without a difference; they’re both about other eurozone countries giving Greece money.
Indeed, one of the debt relief options proposed by the I.M.F. is “explicit annual transfers to the Greek budget,” that is, direct payments from other governments to Greece, which it could use to make its debt payments. This, obviously, is a fiscal union.
A second option is extending the grace period, during which Greece would be relieved of the obligation to make interest or principal payments on its debt to European countries, through the year 2053. That’s not a typo. Under this plan, Greece would make no more debt payments until Justin Bieber is 59 years old. This is a fiscal union by another name, since those lengthy and favorable credit terms would save the Greeks money at the expense of Greece’s creditors, most of which now are other European governments or the I.M.F.
The third option floated by the I.M.F., a cancellation of a portion of Greece’s debts, has been fiercely resisted by the German government, even though this is the option that least obviously constitutes a continuing fiscal union. Debt cancellation is a one-time fiscal transfer (if I lend you $100 and then forgive the debt, that’s much like me simply giving you $100), but at least in theory it would be done only once, with Greece expected to stand on its own otherwise. The important exception is that Greece would still need to rely on European governments to lend it money at favorable rates, though not quite as favorable as under the Old Bieber scenario.
Unfortunately, however, this is not Greece’s first bailout rodeo. Previous bailouts have had to be revised and enlarged, and as the I.M.F. notes in the section of its memo about “considerable downside risk,” that could happen again. The plans for Greece to regain solvency rely on fast economic growth and sharp rises in labor productivity that outperform the rest of Europe — something that cannot be guaranteed. They also rely on the country’s running a large primary surplus for an extended period — that is, collecting much more in taxes than it spends on government services, which typically does not prove popular with the voting public.In other words, Europeans would have good reason to fear that a debt haircut given to Greece today would not be the last.
The memo makes clear what the real cost to Europe of continued eurozone membership for Greece is: If European governments want to keep Greece in, they’re going to have to put up a lot of money in one non-loan form or another, money they will give Greece that they never get back.
Of course, the main alternative to a deal is a Greek exit from the euro, which would also be costly to European holders of existing Greek debt, who could expect to be repaid in devalued drachmas, if at all. That is a reason for European governments to be willing to pay the price prescribed by the I.M.F. to make a Greek deal work.
But the I.M.F. officials are saying they cannot pretend that a bailout deal will lead to an eventual payment in full from Greece. If Greece stays in the euro, it will need much more financial support from the rest of Europe than was admitted in Monday’s deal, and the I.M.F. is asking European governments to put that admission on paper.