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Berlin's message to Athens: Be very, very afraid

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Robin Lustig | 10:04 UK time, Friday, 18 May 2012

I don't know about you, but I'm beginning to feel as if I'm watching the highest-stakes game of poker ever played.

On one side of the table, sweating nervously, Greek voters. On the other side, gimlet-eyed, poker-faced (sorry), the German chancellor Angela Merkel.

And there, in the middle of the table, where the pile of chips should be, the future of the European economy. Which means, to you and me, our jobs, our savings, our mortgages and our pensions.

Greek voters know they're holding a lousy hand. And they know that Chancellor Merkel knows. What they don't know is whether she's prepared to risk everything on the possibility that they will keep upping the stakes, even with no hope of winning.

After all, if they're bust, they're bust -- so it doesn't matter how much they lose, because they won't be able to pay. So maybe Frau Merkel will fold first. Offer a life-line, perhaps, to keep them in the game.

Also at the table are the onlookers, and they're sweating even more profusely than the Greek voters.

Here's the governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King: "We have been through a big global financial crisis, the biggest downturn in world output since the 1930s, the biggest banking crisis in this country's history, the biggest fiscal deficit in our peacetime history and our biggest trading partner, the euro area, is tearing itself apart without any obvious solution."

And here's the former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling: "This has the seeds of something disastrous. It is madness."

Oh, and the head of the International Institute of Finance, Charles Dallara: if Greece leaves the euro, the damage would be "somewhere between catastrophic and armageddon".

OK. You get the picture. European leaders are very, very worried, as they head to the US for this weekend's meeting of the G8. So what will they do? My hunch: not a lot -- and here's why.

Politicians don't start sounding panicky unless there's a good reason -- and my guess is that the reason this weekend is that they want to panic Greek voters.

They want them to fear that if they vote for an anti-austerity party in their rerun election next month, all hell will break loose.

They want to persuade Greek voters that they can't have what they want, and what the anti-austerity Syriza bloc is promising them: an end to the pain, but continued membership of the eurozone.

The message to Athens from Berlin and Brussels is (cue ominous drum-beat): Be afraid; be very, very afraid.

Are you sure you want to stay in this game of high-stakes poker? What happens if Frau Merkel has stronger nerves than you do, if she forces you out of the game and then takes the shirt off your back and throws your family onto the streets? Is it a risk you're prepared to take?

Now, the implied threat may or may not be well-founded. I'm in no position to judge, and -- more to the point -- nor are Greek voters. All they need to know is that the threat is there, and the risk is real.

For Chancellor Merkel, the threat is a different one. Do you really want to risk Greece crashing out of the euro? More pressure on banks in Spain and Portugal, perhaps Italy as well? Even the collapse of the entire euro project?

After all, Frau Merkel (the Greek poker-player might say), the euro has served Germany well, has it not? Isn't it the euro that has bought you your economic strength, your export-led growth? Do you really want to risk throwing all that away, just so that you can punish us Greeks for our past profligacy?

See what I mean about high-stakes poker? I suggest you put a note in your diary: 17 June, election day (again) in Greece. A day when Greek voters may well be deciding a great deal more than who's going to form their next government.

Unless, of course, the whole euro-caboodle has come crashing down before then.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    The EU and Germany should not be surprised as they knowingly accepted false ratings from the financial industry to accept Greece into the EU and now they want to blame Greece for a political decision that ignored financial realities. The important part of this decision will be the acceptance of the election outcome. The "democratic West", is now arguing that these decisions should not be left to the people. Sounds like China to me. Merkle and the rest of the EU gang did this to themselves. Remember it is these very governments that had the responsibility to provide over-sight of the banking and investment industry that caused this all. Germany takes the moral position that their having climbed to the curb is superior to being in the gutter...they still are covered with stink.

  • Comment number 2.

    Berlin's message should be to the entire western world: Be very, very afraid
    Greece is a snapshot of a broader crisis of European & world capitalism. The future of Greece is being decided by predators - global financiers & their political ilk at the head of national governments as well as the “troika”—the European Union (EU), European Central Bank (ECB) & International Monetary Fund (IMF).
    For Greeks the impact thus far has been catastrophic - decline in living standards, unemployment, & millions relegated to precarious and/or part-time work.There are queues for food!

  • Comment number 3.

    There is a deeper recession coming, worse than 2008.
    US recovering. I don't think so - mass unemployment, poverty food stamps & homelessness. In California, whose economy is comparable to Italy’s and bigger than Spain’s, the governor has demanded a new round of drastic cuts in health care, education and public employee wages.
    There is an air of unreality surrounding all official discussions on Greece. Politicians and media commentators speak of imminent economic collapse and social devastation in one breath, only to demand that more money be paid over to the banks and greater hardship imposed on working people in the next. This is insane.
    Each proposed way out of the crisis only creates the conditions for deeper crisis down the road. All the money supposedly paid over to Greece as a “bailout” has gone straight into the coffers of its major creditors - the banks. Calls for further sacrifice have become impossible to accept. This has been expressed not only in the Greek election, but in France and other recent elections in Britain and Germany, where voters repudiated those parties most closely associated with austerity & spending cuts.
    This is a new war between the most basic needs of the masses & the institutions of capitalism.
    Exit from the euro, return to the drachma: This would still leave Greek workers at the mercy of the global financiers and keep the rule of the Greek capitalists intact, while the value of workers’ homes, wages and what little savings they have would be immediately slashed by as much as 80%.
    Global financial institutions have a $536B exposure to Greek debt, but the Institute of International Finance estimates the true global cost of a Greek exit to be closer to $1.2 TRILLION, pushing the west into a 1930s style depression.
    Fresh Greek elections are scheduled for June 17, but they have no more chance of resolving the crisis than those that took place this month.

  • Comment number 4.

    The problem throughout the Western World is PRIVATE debt (and unaffordable inflated asset prices as a consequence of that debt.)

    These asset prices crush the life out of business and commerce as well as having somewhere to live.

    Until this huge fault-line in banking and western (Harvard) economics is admitted there can be no solution and no recovery.

    Too much money was created by the banks and far far too little regulation took place fro the whole of the last decade. This is a direct copy of what happened in the 1870s European (incl. UK) property boom, but because the debt is so deeply engrained in to society the consequence are far far worse.

    The banks are full of these un-repayable loans - they have to be written down substantially as do the house and property prices that they support. This is not some luxury we can wait to do after the economy has recovered - it is an essential first step.

    Essentially this is why the banking system is bust. The ONLY solution is to set up a new banking system with tight regulation as to how much it can loan and to transfer deposits from the old system to the new through adjusting the levels of security offered by the state.

    For example: presently every depositor is guaranteed up to 100,000 Euro of safe debt in every bank. What needs to be done is to progressively move to a position of guaranteeing only the good (and new ) banks. The present guarantee has the perverse incentive that it persuades depositors to lend money to institutions they would not dream of lending money to in normal circumstances.

    The nettles have to be grasped or there will be no recovery in Greece, in Spain, in the UK or anywhere else in Europe as the banks will continue to crush the life out of the economy.

    There is no quick solution. No 'in one bound and superman was free' answer. Indeed going by the precedent of the 1870s property boom we will be in for another twenty years of Depression.

    It is also vital that saving is positively rewarded once again as without rewarding savers there will be no money to invest in the new banks for them to pass on to the new businesses to create profitable jobs.

    I'll not provide yet another reprise of my autopsy on the carcase of failed regulation once again but it does show that no-regulation creates crashes! Incompetent regulators should have already been sacked and not rewarded - you know who you are!

  • Comment number 5.

    What we are witnessing (among other things) is the ´coming of age´of Germany and its society. From a society that swore against militarism being forced to participate in NATO escapades and criticized for refusing to be dragged into others. From a society who does not deny its past --but hears constant criticism of it by governments and societies --who bury theirs in glory. From a society that has rather paid what others want -- be it to a Prime Minister swinging a handbag or the DDR selling its dissidents, ´blackmailed´into accepting and supporting the Euro as a price for re-unification and blackmailed into making sure a united Germany stayed it NATO. And almost blackmailed that British troops could parade their tanks in Dresden. From a society whose living standard has considerably deteriorated since re-unification Euro introduction and has seen little material benefit from either.

    The Euro has served Europe well, only Germany not. Much of the wealth its industry produces has been spent or squandered on others -- and the ´others´expect it to remain so.

    Now to the ´poker game´ --what is at stake ?

    At stake is that European living standards will deteriorate further and every ´spendthrift´national government will be required to pay the blackmailer themselves --for some a new experience.

    -- that is unless the old ´criticize (Nazi) Germany´ again works.

    Germany and its society has had austerity for 20 years. 17 million new citizens and a completely new infrastructure for them did not come ´free of charge´.

    Knowing Greece --I shed no ´crocodile tears´-- Romanian and Bulgarian citizens are more deserving---and they have as yet only played Tiddledywinks on the European and World stages.

    -- and anyway who wants a modern German society with a clean conscience and German children born Tabula Rase ?

  • Comment number 6.

    http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite2_1_16/05/2012_442323

    "Many are looking at the possibility that Athens issues IOUs to meet salaries and key service bills for a fixed period, much in the way California did during its budget crunch in 2009 when it issued 'registered warrants' with a coupon in place of dollar salaries and which banks then accepted for cash.

    Much hinges on whether the European Central Bank would allow the Greek central bank to accept such IOUs and there's little clarity on those hypotheticals.

    However, strategists reckon any Greek government IOUs would quickly act as a proxy for a new drachma and exchange values against the euro would mostly likely plummet in practice as people rushed to cash out - offering Greeks a glimpse of the shock of devaluation in a euro-ized economy with euro-denominated debts."

  • Comment number 7.

    Be practical...

    To change currencies Greece (or Spain or the UK) needs preparations. These include designing and printing banknotes, modifying all machines that issue and accept these notes, design and produce coins and the enormous process of modifying all the coin taking machines to accept these new coins - this will take a minimum of a year.

    This will be a disastrous year for Greece (or Spain etc) this will disrupt the global economy and will without any doubt whatsoever create a terrible deep recession in Europe and the USA.

    So Greece has to keep the Euro - even if the rest of the World bails it out as not to do so is so disruptive as to make the cost far too high.

    Greece has to be fixed (as indeed California had to be fixed for the same reason).

    Let me suggest exploring the motivation of those groups and individuals who want to destroy the planet's economic stability.

    It we first accept that they are not stupid and have through through the process of leaving a currency what benefit do they think will accrue from the destruction of the Euro. The US Dollar is being challenged as a reserve currency by the Euro and so it is potentially beneficial for US dollar user to destroy the Euro if they are engaged in financial manipulation - that is the US Banks and Hedge Funds etc. This require considerable covert planning. So all in all this is not a credible argument and so one has in the end to come to the conclusion that anyone wishing to destroy the Euro is stupid - similarly anyone who wishes to damage Greece and this is the same thing. (I can elaborate this argument but every set of reasoning comes to the same conclusion.)

    Why then are there so many stupid people about the place? Are there actually 'so many' or is it that the noise they make is disproportionate to their number and influence? However in a twitteresqe world where comments and analysis is limited almost to the monosyllabic there is a dire tendency for the utterances of the nonsensical and irrational to swamp those of reason. Short form answers are nearly always glib and without substance. Refuting the nonsense in a short from is not easy as it requires analysis and argument so as I have argues elsewhere catastrophic swings in sentiment such as the 'kick Greece out' movement tend to be amplified to the general detriment.

    As an aside I note that I appreciate that this argument is not understood by the BBC and they persist in trying to reduce all comment to the monosyllabic and twitteresque but they will learn from their error! All short form comment does is to reduce everything to the baying of the mob and is hugely damaging. In this case to the general economic well-being of everyone in Greece, the UK, Europe (and the USA judging by the statements made yesterday).

  • Comment number 8.

    #7 J_f_H

    Any niceties towards Greece solves nothing and your non-solution appears to be restricted to ´carry on as before´ --´others should save you´ --´your critics are in-humane.´

    We can all agree with both yourself and BluesBerry ´until hell freezes over´but no suggestions are forthcoming on how to change a dysfunctional Greece and society into something even partly functional.

    Two days ago WHYS had a discussion with Greeks in a London Greek restaurant --if I had waited with bated breath to hear of any worthwhile Greek objectivity on how to solve the problems of tax evasion, corruption and the black Greek economy -- I would be writing this posthumously.

    Even a law similar to in America would have no chance of passing in any Greek parliament -- a % of unpaid taxes goes to the reporter.

    -- until a solution to those problems are found --YES! I will maintain 'kick Greece out' and the support the PAYING ´baying mob´(the rest of the EU and Eurozone) -- at least until Greece becomes a functional society --- or ´hell freezes over´.

    -- So please-- some useful suggestions !

  • Comment number 9.

    Spiegel-Online ( German)

    On Monday Greek finance minister was told (by EU equivalent) -- that if a secret vote was taken within the Eurozone leaders -- Greece would be ´out´

    Ireland and Portugal criticized Greece particularly harshly for its behavior.

    Officially it is not possible for Greece to leave the Euro nor be thrown out of the Eurozone.

    -----------

    It appears it would be done unofficially -- tempers are boiling.

  • Comment number 10.

    8. quietoaktree wrote: "I will maintain 'kick Greece out'"

    Daft, as this will do enormous damage to the UK and the rest of Europe. Why do you want to damage the UK (and Europe)?

    Kicking Greece out is in fact no different to keeping Greece in! (in consequences to Greece). But avoiding the destruction of the Euro as a consequence of your visceral attack on the Greeks will do enormous damage to the rest of Europe, the UK etc.)

    No one likes tax evasion and it must be curtailed - but are the Greeks any worse than the British for example? You will recall that I have ways of fixing the inequality problem such as a Maximum National (or European) Income and wealth taxes - you don't/won't pay and you are expelled without a passport. There can't be one tax law for Greeks and another for the City of London etc.

    But in summary vengeance on the Greeks hurts us more than it hurts them!

    What do you think will be gained?

  • Comment number 11.

    #10 J_f_H

    -- Sorry --I can´t accept the argument -- ´others do it´, especially when a country and society fails because of it. Are Greeks worse than the British -- yes!
    (and you know I am not a particular ´flag waver´for the UK)

    Also I disagree intensely with any comparison with the Bankers --both may have the same detrimental effect on European countries --but why should Europeans accept ´being screwed´by either ?

    It is not vengeance by saying ´NO´to a ´blackmailer´.

    As I said in #9 both Ireland and Portugal are fed-up with Greece --they are having their borrowing rates increased because of Greece when attempting to reduce their debt.

    --for that reason alone it will NOT hurt ´us´ (the Eurozone) more than them.

    --"What do you think will be gained?"

    -- A deliberate ´Black Hole´ will no longer be a danger to innocent ´Stars´.

    We cannot talk about wealth equality ( as Greeks wish) --without equal responsibility -- that Greeks reject.

  • Comment number 12.

    #10 J_f_H

    "you don't/won't pay and you are expelled without a passport." ?

    -- Stateless -- From where ?

    --the Greeks did that to their Communists -- where the heck are 11 million Greeks supposed to go -- I have not yet heard from ONE Greek that he/she has paid their full taxes.

    And the Greek Government will pass that law ?

  • Comment number 13.

    Spiegel-Online ( German)

    --Nick Clegg has ´more than suggested´ to ´Spiegel´

    That Germany should give money to directly ´struggling´ governments (for an indefinite period). Also accept that Eurobonds should be introduced.

    The responses by German bloggers have been far from positive.

    --- so the French can retire at 60 --Germans at 67?

    German borrowing rates would double instead of 60Bln. in interest -- Germany would pay 120 Bln./year ?

    My #5 appears to have ´hit the target´.

    -- now parasitic ideas from the UK ?

    Questioned by only a few-

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/9276543/Europe-finally-awakes-from-its-utopian-dream.html

  • Comment number 14.

    How is it possible that the Greek society pleads starvation and poverty -- when they are requested to pay taxes ?

    -- any other ´normal´society within the EU or Eurozone -- would just shut- up and pay !

  • Comment number 15.

    How Greeks see the situation --no comment necessary.

    http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite1_1_22/05/2012_443257

  • Comment number 16.

    Funny old place, EUland.

    Even funnier is how one gets to hear of how things are going there, here, and there..

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-18158470

    (comments fun, esp. 'Highest Rated' and those post..'Update')

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-18165420

    'Translation' is the new 'reporting' now, apparently. But maybe just on special occasions when the news need 'special interpretation'?

  • Comment number 17.

    Spiegel-Online

    --Alexis Tsipras ( Greek Syriza Party) in Berlin.

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/greek-leftist-alexis-tsipras-calls-on-germany-to-drop-austerity-demand-a-834579.html

    "He had no intention of "blackmailing" the German people, he said. But then he appeared to do just that, saying the bailout terms would have to be renegotiated, or else."

 

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