Will Greece Pay Its Debts Via The Agamemnon Option?

Legend has it that, at the onset of the Trojan war, the Mycenaen king Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis, the goddess of (amongst other things) wildness, in order to obtain favorable winds for the Hellenic fleet’s crossing of the Aegean.

Some three millennia after the events that inspired this story, the government in Athens finds itself again attempting to appease greater powers in the face of an increasingly wild regional conflict. And yet again, perhaps Greek leaders have already made a terrible sacrifice of youth which could go some distance to calming the seas their beleaguered nation must navigate, if those greater powers view the offering with favor.

Standing in for Artemis are the so-called “Troika” of Greece’s institutional creditors, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the eurozone countries. In the role of poor Iphigenia we have a generation of young, educated, professional and entrepreneurial Greeks. In these more civilized times, however, the sacrificial instruments are not altar and dagger but an airline ticket and an EU passport.

At least two hundred thousand Greeks have emigrated since the financial crisis began, the vast majority of whom are youthful, skilled and facing bleak prospects in their home country. They are the next generation of Greece’s experts in medicine, the sciences, engineering, finance and academia. Their primary destinations are other EU nations – for example, the UK’s Guardian reports Germany alone has received 35,000 Greek physicians.

While many of these émigrés might prefer to return to their native land someday, Greece’s stifling regime of regulation and taxation, its bloated welfare state and rampant corruption are likely to continue to render that nation far too uncompetitive to accommodate their ambitions. The 2014-15 World Economic Forum competitiveness ranking places Greece eight-first, just behind Uruguay (but, in fairness, one ahead of Moldova). By contrast, the U.S is third, while Germany ranks fifth. Rather than implement meaningful additional legal, pension and labor market reforms, Athens proposes to roll back many of those the Troika has already imposed, thus ensuring this unfortunate state of affairs is likely to continue for some time.

Yet there is a kind of tragic silver lining in all this, both for Greece’s creditors and its government’s apparent vision. Consider the value of Greece’s professional diaspora in Europe to its recipient nations. Let’s do an admittedly “back of the envelope” calculation. First, a few compensation figures. For German engineers the average is around $57,000, for bankers around $55,000. The average physician in Germany made $155,000 in 2010, in France a bit lower at $131,000. So for the sake of argument, let’s assume a $50,000 per capita income for two hundred thousand Greek professional émigrés (a number which could rise if Greece continues on its current trajectory) and an average working lifetime of thirty years. Discounting by the current German thirty year bund rate of 1.5% over that time frame (a not unreasonable proxy given integration into largely northern European economies) yields an expected present value of $240 billion. Assuming a 50% rate of total taxation (income,VAT, property etc.) yields $120 billion, or approximately 44% of the $273 billion Greece owes the Troika creditors and the central banks of the eurozone. In particular, this is $30 billion more than the $90 billion the ECB has extended to Greek banks under the former’s Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) program*.

Thus, if the Troika and the eurozone’s central banks are to take a hit on Greece, the transfer of that country’s human capital to the rest of Europe and other IMF members should provide the creditors with some recompense (in an ideal world some inter-creditor transfer system would be implemented to make things fair, given that many Greek expats may head to the non-eurozone UK and the non-EU United States, and that poorer creditors like Portugal may not get a pari passu share of Greek emigration). A full realization of the value of this emigration might ameliorate the Troika’s reticence concerning whatever restructuring, discount, or other euphemism for a Greek default ensues, perhaps to the point of extending the ELA to prevent bank runs, with a bit left over for some form of humanitarian aid.

To be sure, some of the Troika’s actions and proposals have been neither helpful nor realistic, especially as regards overly aggressive near-term primary surplus targets (1% for the next couple of years would be in the outer realm of the possible). Yet the irony here is that, absent very necessary reforms to the welfare state that Athens is loath to agree to, the conditions in Greece are likely to persist, such that young, talented Greeks will remain in diaspora, lending their abilities and energy to the economies of Greece’s creditors. Effectively, Athens will have guaranteed at least a partial repayment of its debts, albeit at the cost of its nations’ youth.

Of course, the Greek polis may not be entirely pleased with its government’s sacrificial policy. After all, in Pindar’s poetic telling, certain members of Agamemnon’s constituency, notably Clytemnestra, mother of Iphigenia and his queen, registered displeasure with the monarch in the manner of a time before the invention of the parliamentary no-confidence vote, making for arguably the most notorious bathing scenes in literature. With polls consistently showing a majority of Greeks in favor of remaining in the eurozone even if that means agreeing to painful reform, Greece’s leadership may yet choose to compromise. Otherwise, they could find themselves grateful that the democratic process allows them to lose power without taking a bath considerably less pleasant than even the one they would impose on their creditors.

Then again, in some old versions of the tale, at the last moment Artemis rescues Iphigenia and replaces her with a stag, so hey, there’s always the chance of a deal, though bailing out Greece will take a lot more than a single buck.

*Of course this analysis neglects the social welfare cost of the émigrés to their adopted countries; this may be justified to the extent that these young people are already educated and that much of the other expenses will be incurred in old age and thus are to be heavily discounted in terms of present value. Such costs would also be partially offset by revenue from assets transferred out of Greece by the expats and other Greeks, and also by revenue from enterprises founded by disproportionately entrepreneurial immigrants, at least if one goes by the American experience.

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One Response to “Will Greece Pay Its Debts Via The Agamemnon Option?”

  1. TVH says:

    Fantastic Analysis.
    The sub-optimal outcome for ongoing resident Greek citizens illustrates the difference between ideology -driven political processes and normal market clearing processes.
    Note that European policymakers are far less concerned with inter-temporal month-to-month market movements (spreads, equities, etc.) than in the U.S., including especially the Fed and Treasury. Ditto many corporate leaders.
    And meanwhile, there is significant political strain as within the EU, and even within certain countries like Germany, coming from meaningfully sized constituencies (Nederlands Freedom Party, most of Bavaria, France’s FN and most of southeast France generally) which would delight to see Greece exited, crashed and burned — at least until such time as it’s somewhere between today’s Bangladesh and yesteryear’s Biafra.
    Like the Clowns in Athens, these constituencies matter greatly to the ability of EU policymakers to conclude any deal in broad daylight given the perception of the behavior of Syeriza.

    Saganaki baby. … “Whooaapah !! “

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