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Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Lesson from Grexit

Grexit teaches us something fundamental.

Two Approaches to debt
There are two fundamental approaches to debt.

First is the Capitalistic Approach. It says creditors must make investment with eye on risk and should their assessment be wrong, they must take hair-cut. The counter-burden on the debtor is that debtor is forced into austerity so that they make adequate efforts to get the creditors adequate return on their investment. Thus a debtor who made a risky investment is required to pass higher hurdle in the future to prove that his new investment is not as risky. Market adjusts the risk premium to reflect borrowers prudence. A prudent borrower gets lower interest burden while a profligate borrower is required to pay higher.

Second is the Creditor Protection Approach. It protects the creditors to greater extent. The protection afforded comes from various methods. In emergency government could assume private debt (as in EU crisis private debt was assumed by ECB, in 2007-08 crisis even privately owned equity was assumed by the US government). This approach is taken when the creditors are low-risk seeking pension funds or other instrument supporting social benefits. The counter-burden here is not on the debtor, it is on the Government bailing out the creditor. The bailout is only complete if the debt burden is reduced thus, here, the Government takes the hair-cut. This is an approach that promises debt jubilee.

The essentials
We may note that hair-cut is an essential ingredient of both approaches. The question is only as to who takes the hair-cut. When ECB assumed private debt, it assumed the hair-cut as well. Denying that renders the approach useless. This is from the creditor side.

Reducing debtor's burden is also essential feature, with different extent in each model. The Capitalistic Approach favours reducing as against eliminating the debt. Thus, the debtor continues to bear the debt that he can sustainably bear. Conversely, in Creditor Protection Approach the almost the entire debt is waived. So, Greece was right to ask for debt reduction.

The Grexit Model
The EU model fares poorly against either of these approaches. It does not have any essential elements and have worse aspects of both models. It is a sort of mixed model. 

The EU/ECB dilemma is that if Greece is allowed a Debt reduction, other PIIGS will be next in line. The current mixed approach will imply that ECB will be left holding the bag for all the PIIGS. Now in a normal sovereign, the central bank and sovereign are two facets of same entity. But in EU's case it is not so - primarily because the peoples of EU are not politically united. Thus, ECB is "owned" by Germany and other non-PIIGS a different sovereign than debtors. Can peoples of EU be politically mature to forge EU into a political union? If they do it will fructify the original EU dream.